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Fabian Zanella, Ph.D.

Head of Cell Biology | StemoniX

Interviews and Editing by: Alexandra Bortnick

Interview: June 2016
Transition: June 2015

1. Please list your previous department at UC San Diego and provide a brief description of the research you conducted?

Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiology. My research focused on the use of human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) to model genetic heart diseases.

2. Please describe your current job profile?

My current role is Head of Cell biology at StemoniX, a biotech startup that provides hiPSCs and differentiated organ-specific cells for R&D and screening projects in academia, biotech and pharma industries. Leading a team of six people, I oversee all R&D activities around the generation, validation and differentiation of hiPSCs into target organ cells. 

3. What made you decide to transition into your current position?

A growing interest in using my research skills to create solutions that would enable a quicker translation of cell-based assays into data that can lead to the development of better and safer drugs. I was also very interested in building a research program from scratch, hence the opportunity to work at a startup company was very appealing.

4. Apart from the research you conducted, do you feel like anything in particular has helped you acquire your current position?

Yes, keeping good relationships with everyone with whom I interacted during my postdoc, especially collaborators.

5. Please list some of the most striking similarities and differences between your postdoc and current position?

The greatest similarity is that I am still doing active research in cell models that I have used during my postdoc. The greatest difference is that instead of working alone on a project, everything I do now is part of a much bigger endeavor, there is a strong collaborative and collective effort to make strong, solid science as a team.

6. Is there any specific challenge (during the entire process of transitioning) that you would like to highlight and, if so, how did you overcome it?

I believe that academic training is often impregnated with a high degree of skepticism that can easily turn into pessimism, and a lot of dogmatic thinking. In my current position, at a startup company which needs to constantly innovate, I have had to learn to be much more open-minded. I have seen that within a multi-disciplinary team asking simple questions, one would say naïve even, can lead to really interesting and impactful projects.

7. Please describe your goals and ambitions for the next 5 years?

I hope to be able to help StemoniX grow, having a good number of products out in the market. I think that my biggest accomplishment will be to have a platform that we developed be successfully used in a drug development campaign. I also want to learn more about project and product development, which are aspects that are new to me, yet extremely interesting.

8. What do you feel you could have done more, as a postdoc, to help prepare you for or acquire your current position?

I wish I had come in contact with the entrepreneurial world sooner, so I would be more up to speed before I had started in this current position. I have been learning a lot and I am enjoying every bit of it.

9. What do you feel is the most important advice you can give to a current UCSD postdoc in order for them to obtain a position such as yours?

Be nice to people, no matter who they are. From your current mentor to the undergrads in the lab, from industry leaders to the sales reps that come to talk to you in the lab. You never know where opportunity may come from, and a good referral can go a long way.

If you are a non-American citizen who knows that you want to live in the US for a couple more years, apply for permanent residency as soon as possible. It will help you tremendously to get a fighting chance applying for a job in industry, and it will also give you more freedom if you decide to stay in academia.