20 Questions: Brian Baxter, PhD

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

Brian Baxter, PhD, is a current postdoctoral scholar with the DeRisi Group at University of California, San Francisco (2011-present), where he is working to optically encode polymer microbeads containing rare-earth nanophosphors and produce them using an automated microfluidic device. Baxter received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at University of California Davis (summa cum laude, 1994). He went on to receive his PhD in organic chemistry from University of California Berkeley (2000). During his studies at UC Davis, Baxter was an undergraduate research assistant on a project involving the synthesis of novel porphyrins for photodynamic therapy applications. While at Berkeley, Baxter worked on a project sequencing the Anabaena Genome. His graduate research and thesis involved a modular approach to chiral liquid-crystalline diacrylates using a natural product as the chiral unit.
Dr. Baxter’s employment history includes Resolution Science Corp. (2000-2001), a now defunct biomedical start-up in San Francisco dedicated to the digital volumetric imaging of biological tissues and non-biological materials, where he was a scientist in research and development to troubleshoot current processes and discover new methods beneficial to the company. His next employment was with A.P. Pharma (2001-2007), where he started as a scientist and was promoted to senior scientist and manager, working on formulations and polymer synthesis in research and development to develop bioerodible polymers and incorporate APIs into them to create novel delivery systems. Baxter went on to Parallel Synthesis Technologies (2007-2011), where he started as a senior scientist and became director at the privately held start-up actively engaged in developing a multiplexing platform for biological assays using optically-encoded particles based on rare-earth inorganic phosphors.
When did you first decide to become a chemist? Why?
Probably around middle school. I always loved science and thought I’d either be a doctor, veterinarian, or a physical scientist (most likely a chemist). It just made sense to me to engage in studies that helped explain the observable world around me.
How/why did you choose the graduate school you attended?
I picked schools with very good reputations to apply to. I knew graduate school was competitive [and] I didn’t know if I would be able to work with my first-choice advisor at any given university. I picked the university with the most groups that interested me, so that if I didn’t get to work with advisor #1 on my list the alternatives were still a good choice.
What surprised you the most about your graduate studies?
I wasn’t aware that the selection of your advisor (and the specific area of chemistry you were going to study) had such a tremendous effect on your subsequent field of study. I naively thought that as long as I was doing something organic synthesis related, I could find a job anywhere with that general description. I wasn’t aware that the specific area of study you engage in sets up the most straightforward path for you into the future. I wasn’t able to transition effortlessly into medicinal or pharmaceutical chemistry, because that is not what I specialized in during my graduate school studies.
Why did you decide to specialize to pursue a PhD in chemistry?
It seemed the logical means to an end. I really didn’t have a specific endpoint in mind (BS, MS, PhD) and it always seemed like the most options existed for chemists with a PhD.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a chemist? Why or why not?
I would, but I would also likely have not pursued a PhD. In the past one to two decades, there has been a glut of PhD chemists in the work force. When the economy or chemistry industry hits hard times like it has done cyclically since the 90s, the PhDs stay out of work the longest and have the hardest time getting back into the market. You can’t “undo” that degree or experience, so you essentially cannot apply for a BS-level position at any company (many more opportunities there) because you will be told you are over-qualified and they can’t pay you enough for what you’ll expect and you’ll just leave in six months…so they won’t hire you. Also, with a PhD you are over-specialized for most positions, so you can’t get a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry and then walk in and easily get hired for an entry level analytical chemist position at a brewery unless you know someone.
Has being a chemist met your expectations? Please explain.
It has. It is an intellectually stimulating field and work environment. It has its good days and bad days, like any profession, but I’ve been very happy and satisfied with the quality of life and job satisfaction that being a chemist has afforded.
What do you like most about being a chemist?
I like challenges that can be overcome with lots of thought, discussion, basic principles, and thorough experimentation. I like challenges that are not easily overcome and may take months to find a tenable solution.
What do you like least about being a chemist?
In basic research and development, sometimes timelines on breakthroughs or discovery do not coincide with the tight timelines of financial interests, and this can be very stressful. Basic science is sometimes not a field where working harder is guaranteed to pay off in success. External pressure from market forces and quarterly earnings reports or private funding with strict timelines can be overly stressful when compared to a field that has more soluble problems.
(Note—all answers for the next five questions are based on my current position as a postdoctoral researcher, and not as a scientist in industry as has been the case for over a decade before my current position.)
Describe a typical day at work—walk me through a day in your shoes.
I have a flexible work schedule to allow arrival at work either before or after the general commute. Upon arriving to work, I plan my day and experiments, say hello to lab mates and address any emails from the past 12 hours. Then, I tackle the day’s planned experiments. I work on academic projects that have overall goals and aims, but the work – particularly the day-to-day work – is almost entirely self–directed. The work is mostly bench-level wet-lab chemistry experiments (think beakers, test tubes, solvents, and chemicals). We usually eat lunch as a small group (three people in my subset of a larger group) and then head back to lab. The next time we take a break together is for afternoon coffee. Weekly meetings to discuss progress and difficulties take place with our group as do group meetings where one person speaks more in-depth about their project to the rest of the group for 60 to 90 minutes. Basically, it’s still the same environment as graduate school, just with even more independence and self-direction. The timing of experiments (when to start a given experiment, whether to run overnight or multi-day, etc.) are largely governed by trying to leave work at a reasonable hour in order to both exercise and have time to spend at home before the next day starts. As with coming into work, I time my leave from work with a lighter traffic pattern.
On average, how many hours a week do you work? How many hours of sleep do you get per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take annually?
I currently work about 40 to 50 hours per week. I get about eight hours of sleep a night, and I am allotted (and usually take) 24 days of vacation per year. This is absolutely not typical for my previous positions in industry, particularly at start-up companies.
Do you feel you have enough time to spend with family and friends? Why or why not?
I do. I do not have to work weekends for my current position and the generous vacation time leaves me with plenty of time to see friends and family farther away than my immediate locale.
How do you balance work and your life outside of work?
I used to be imbalanced with a bias towards work, like most people tend to be in modern society. I burned out on that model with 10 to 12 hour workdays and only a scant two to three hours at home to perform all chores, errands, and everything else. I now put personal life – and this is mainly exercise and physical activities that I like to do – at a much higher priority in my life than work and “getting ahead in the world.” I can still appreciate hard work, but I appreciate taking care of your mind and body much more.
Do you feel you are adequately compensated in your field? Please explain.
I do, particularly when in industry. I currently make an NIH-established wage, which is substantially lower than what I made previously (70% lower), but it is still a living wage and the work-life balance from Question 12 is fulfilled to a much greater extent in my current position.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a strain? Please explain.
No educational loans were taken. My family was upper-middle-class enough to pay for my undergraduate education without hardship and without the need to take out loans. My university subsidized my graduate studies expenses (tuition, etc.) and I was paid an additional stipend (living wage) so that I came out of graduate school not owing anything.
In your position now, knowing what you do, what would you say to yourself back when you started your chemistry career?
This is not specific to chemistry, but I’d tell myself to make a reasonable work-life balance a priority and not compromise on that, even if it means having to find a different job. I lost many years to devoting too much time for work with nothing great to show for it now.
What information/advice do you wish you had known prior to beginning graduate school?
Graduate school is what you make of it. You can apply yourself fully and learn as many techniques as possible and network extensively and come out with many contacts and job prospects. Or you can cruise through and still get a PhD, but not have any of the skills or contacts that make the next phases of your career much more fruitful.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in healthcare today? Please explain.
In basic science, I think it the overselling of the need for a PhD: it has created an overpopulation of PhDs. In healthcare in general, I think it is the lack of interest at the policy level to focus on prevention for the health of a human being. We have a reactive paradigm where most of the money goes into cures (treatment modalities, prescription drugs, improved diagnostics, etc.) to problems that largely could have been prevented in the first place, such as lung cancer from smoking and type 2 diabetes from obesity and diet.
Where do you see your field in five years?
I see the field of personalized medicine and improved diagnostics a reality in the next five years instead of something that is always promised to be in the future. This means rapidly diagnosing tricky or hidden conditions that are currently going undiagnosed without a massive amount of tests. Also, tailoring medications to be most effective based on your genetic makeup and how you might process or react to a given pharmaceutical.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
I do not do any outreach or volunteer work. The previous employers I worked for had more interest in having me maximize my time at their company and had no interest in volunteer work outside of the company. Unfortunately, this became my mindset then so now opportunities for volunteering don’t even cross my mind. In other words, I now live life pretty selfishly.
What’s your final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in your field?
As long as you know what you want to do and would be happy doing (e.g., routine analytical work, basic research and development, analytical chemistry versus organic synthesis, etc.), it is a fun and rewarding field. Think about your motivations for pursuing your ultimate/terminal degree and what you think you’d like to achieve with that degree. Do you want to teach? Manage? Work at a lab bench all your life? I think as long as you have a fair idea of what you might want as you mature into a role in chemistry, it’s pretty easy to have a rewarding and prosperous career in the field of chemistry.