Professional in Residence Katja Brose: Breaking down scientific silos

Katja Brose, PhD, is a science program officer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Brose is joining the QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence (PIR) program on January 26th, 2023. UC Berkeley trainees may register for Brose’s PIR events here. Brose spoke with graduate student Samvardhini Sridharan about her career and the opportunities she’s had to wear many scientific hats.

Samvardhini Sridharan: Could you tell us about your background and scientific training?

Katja Brose: Looking back, I think what I would say is true about my career is that very little of it was planned. I studied at Brown University as an undergrad, where I knew I was interested in biology, but I honestly didn’t think that far ahead—I certainly wasn’t thinking about graduate school! The research that I did at Brown wasn’t in cell biology, molecular biology, or biochemistry— it was in ecology and evolution, and field biology. Brown had limited core requirements, which made it possible to double major. I double majored in biology, with an emphasis on ecology and evolution and history.

After college, I decided that I wanted to pivot from field biology and evolutionary biology to learn molecular biology. I managed to get a job at the Whitehead Institute at MIT in a retrovirus lab. I was a technician for four years before I went to graduate school. It was through being a technician and meeting graduate students and postdocs that I started considering graduate school as an option.

I grew up in Connecticut and had never been to California before I interviewed for graduate schools, but someone suggested UCSF to me. Once I visited UCSF and San Francisco, I never looked back. I did my graduate work and received my PhD from UCSF, in the program in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and cell biology, where I trained with Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Marc had just started his lab at UCSF a few years before and it was just around the time they were cloning the Netrins, so it was an exciting time to be in the lab. Marc’s lab was focused on developmental and molecular neuroscience and I worked on projects related to molecular and cellular mechanisms of axon guidance. I am so grateful for my time in Marc’s lab and the colleagues I worked with. They taught me so much, and the relationships I developed during graduate school have led to life-long friendships that have had such an important impact on my life, both personally and professionally.

Black and white headshot of Katja Brose
Katja Brose is joining QB3-Berkeley’s Professional in Residence program this month. Photo courtesy of Katja Brose.

One thing to make note of, given my career path in neuroscience: I was officially in the biochemistry cell biology program, not a neuroscience student, so I came into neuroscience from the back door and had no idea or ambitions that I would take a full career trajectory with it! My path from undergraduate biology to being a technician to graduate school turns out to be fairly representative for how I have approached my professional life, throughout my career. It may seem that I’ve followed a straight line and very planned course for my career, but really, I have tended to follow my nose and interests, work hard, focus on learning new skills and especially learning from others. I have also been incredibly lucky to have great mentors and colleagues along the way and have tried not to be too daunted by areas that I don’t know or gaps in experience. Somehow that has worked for me.

SS: You were the editor-in-chief of Neuron for many years and are now a Science Program Officer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. What brought you to both of those very different roles?

KB: I was about midway through graduate school when it became clear to me that I did not want to make a career in academic science, as a professor or PI. There were a lot of reasons for this. I have huge admiration for people who pursue this route, but it was not for me. I went to graduate school in the mid-to-late 90s and at that time, it was difficult to know what other options existed outside of academia.

I thought a lot about what skills I had, but as importantly, what I liked to do, what resonated with me personally. I think most people who are in graduate school will have a breadth of skills. The tendency may be to think about what you’ve done, the skill you have and what you can do with them professionally. I was a very good experimentalist and I liked doing experiments, and I suspect that I could have been successful running a lab, but I could see that it wasn’t what I wanted to spend my life doing. That was an important realization for me.

When thinking about what I might do with my next step, I came to journal editing in a bit of a round-about way. I realized that I liked to gain new knowledge and organize thoughts. I liked telling scientific stories and learning about new research. I was lucky that Marc, my advisor, was very supportive and encouraging when we discussed my taking a path other than a post-doc. Journal publishing was a suggestion that Marc made to me, and he helped connect me to people who worked at journals. I didn’t know that much about it at the time. I had published a number of papers with Marc and had a sense of the publishing process from that perspective, but I certainly didn’t know what an editor does on a day to day basis, let alone the ins and outs of the publishing industry. And frankly, I suspect that if I had known too much about it, I think I might not have done it!

I ended up applying for a number of jobs, mostly related to publishing, and got an offer to join Neuron and started my working as a junior editor shortly after defending my thesis. From there, I worked hard to learn the job and there was so much to learn, both about the job and the science. I knew my field very well and I knew some neuroscience beyond my field but I was not formally trained as a neuroscientist, and the vast majority of what Neuron covered was outside of my knowledge base. But, I was open and receptive to learning and sometimes getting it wrong. And I had great teachers, through reviewers, editorial board advisors and colleagues. Those first few years were incredibly challenging and stimulating. I learned an incredible amount of science—probably a far broader range of science than I was exposed to in my years in graduate school. And I learned a lot about the publishing process, about editing, about working on a professional team, and about myself, as a professional.

About four years later, there was an opening to apply to be editor in chief. I had strong mentorship from others at the journal and made the leap. And again, it was a whole other set of skills. The truism for me is being able to step into the void of the job that I didn’t know enough about, and maybe even one I felt I wasn’t fully qualified for, and then working hard to learn as much as I could. That is sometimes uncomfortable, but I think making that leap beyond your comfort zone is really the only way you can move into new areas.

I loved being an editor at Neuron and think if I could have done that for 17 more years, I’d still be learning from that role. When the opportunity at CZI came up, I wasn’t actively looking for a new position, per se, and was quite happy at Neuron. CZI had just been launched and Cori Bargmann had been recruited to lead the science initiative. I knew Cori really well. She was on my thesis committee and her lab, when she was at UCSF, was next to my graduate lab. Cori is just an exceptional scientist, leader, and human being whom I admire enormously, and her involvement made me notice CZI. I also was intrigued by CZI as a new organization that was aiming to take a different approach to science philanthropy.

From my work at Neuron, I knew that I loved building programs and projects and liked being creative about problem solving, which is what drew me to science in the first place. But what really inspired me—and still inspires me about CZI—is the vision that Cori set for this new philanthropic venture which was looking to contribute to changing some of the cultural aspects of science, to change the way science is being done, to make it more collaborative and inclusive, and to change how science is evaluated and rewarded and how we think about who it engages. I love the mission driven aspect of the work and th­­­­e focus on basic science as a way to accelerate understanding of disease and ultimately, contribute to the development of therapeutics.

SS:  If you could go back in time, how would you train yourself for these roles as a graduate student?

KB: I’m not sure I would do much differently. I feel strongly that graduate school is about training you to be rigorous scientist, critical thinker, and member of the scientific community and if you do that, you will be well prepared for a whole range of careers, both in and out of science. I am also a big supporter of professional development opportunities. At the same time, I am not sure one needs to know what career one wants to pursue to benefit from the general-purpose training one gets in grad school. The world changes so quickly and that is especially true for career paths. When I started grad school, a lot of the jobs that now employ biology PhDs didn’t exist. At the time, journal editing wasn’t a well-defined career path. There were far fewer journals and even fewer journal editors. I couldn’t have known when I started graduate school that the job I might be preparing myself for would be a journal editor. And certainly, tech philanthropy wasn’t even a thing. This was the days before Google!

The most important things I learned in graduate school were less about specific skills or domain knowledge but more about ways of being and organizing myself: how to think critically and creatively; how to learn and tackle hard problems; how to collaborate and work with colleagues; how to develop strategies for building personal resilience and adaptability; how to fail well and keep going when things aren’t going well. Talking to graduate students and postdocs in recent years, it has surprised me the degree to which people are preparing for careers outside of research even before they get into the meat of graduate school—sometimes even before they get into graduate school! Perhaps it sounds counterintuitive when discussing professional development, but I would encourage trainees to avoid specialization too early and instead use their graduate school experience to engage deeply in being a student, and critically thinking scientist. Go deep in training yourself as the best possible scientist you can be, because that’s actually what future employers will someday hire you for, perhaps it won’t be for a research career, but your scientific and critical skills will serve you well in a range of career paths.

SS: When it comes to your career, you’ve noted above that you’re comfortable not knowing. How did you learn this skill?

KB: Perhaps it’s less like becoming comfortable with not knowing an answer but being comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing. This is hard for scientists and still hard for me. I think we want to know the answers and absent knowing the answers, we ask a lot of questions and often still have opinions. As scientists we are trained to think of ourselves as problem solvers and critical thinkers and to try to pick apart a problem. This often carries over to how we are in other parts of our lives, including work—it’s hard not to show up as the expert and the in-house critic!

I saw it a lot when I was an editor and now also as a funder. I saw it a lot in reviewers. It’s a lot easier to see weaknesses in a paper (or a grant) than to see opportunities and potential. I also saw this in other professional domains. At Cell Press the editors were all scientists with PhDs and postdocs. Too often when we interacted with groups— like the finance team, or the communication and marketing team who weren’t scientists—about a new initiative or project, the editors and scientists had a way of asking a lot of questions, which often came across as picking apart a project. We see questioning as curiosity and interest, but other people sometimes see it more negatively, as a challenge. That critical questioning style is a natural part of being a scientist, but I’ve learned not everybody brings that same perspective. It’s best to act with humility, a willingness to learn, and to be open to learning from others and other points of view.

From a somewhat different perspective, looking back on my career, I think this comfort with the discomfort of not knowing and being in a learning mindset has been a consistent thread for how I’ve approached my career. I didn’t know anything about molecular biology (not even how to pipette) before I dove into being a research technician! When I applied for and took the job at Neuron, I knew a lot about some domains of the field (developmental neuroscience) but very little about other aspects of neuroscience. I also had to learn how to be a professional editor, while on the job, doing the job. There was no “practice session.” And the same goes for my transition to CZI: I’m still learning the ins and outs of philanthropy and part of my job is to explore new frontier areas of science, which I often know very little about. At CZI, as a relatively young organization, we talk a lot about “building a plane while flying it.” I see myself and my career very much as a project still in the works and I’m definitely flying this plane while building it!

Katja Brose is a science program officer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, contributing to CZI’s goals to support basic science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century. She leads CZI’s efforts around neurodegenerative diseases and neuroscience. Before joining CZI, she was part of the editorial team at Cell Press for 17 years, where from 2004-2017 she was editor-in-chief of Neuron and a publishing director at Cell Press-Elsevier. She received her PhD in Biochemistry from the University of California, San Francisco in 2000. 

Samvardhini Sridharan is a PhD candidate in Molecular and Cell Biology in Peter Sudmant’s group in the Center for Computational Biology, where she uses computational tools to study human genetic variation.  Samvardhini is also passionate about science communication and is the blog editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Science Review, as well as a writer and editor for the print magazine.