Career Choice interview with Leon Hartman

Name: Leon Hartman, PhD
Position: Research Assistant – Data Analyst
Affiliation: WEHI (The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research)
Location: Melbourne, VIC, Australia
Pronouns: He/Him
Briefly describe your current role in your position.
I currently help track the composition and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants circulating in Victoria, Australia, by analysing NGS data derived from wastewater at WEHI (The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research).

What is your terminal and/or current position in academia?    

How did you hear about your current position? Was it a career option that you were aware about during your educational process?
My position was advertised on the WEHI website careers page. Being an Research Assistant (RA) didn't cross my mind during my studies. Like all graduating PhDs, my 'Plan A' was to chase a post-doc position, with a notion that something in industry could be a 'Plan B'. However, the COVID-19 pandemic (my PhD was conferred in 2020) changed the employment landscape and forced me to broaden my outlook.

How did you end up working at your current affiliation?
I applied through the WEHI careers portal as my skillset seemed like a good fit for the advertised position and the project sounded fascinating as the pandemic was in full swing.

How long have you been working at your current affiliation?    
3+ years

What type of position is your current job? 
It could be hybrid, but I enjoy being onsite.

Is your role more a managerial or individual contributor role?     
Individual Contributor

What are the defined roles of your position?    
I design, write and run the analytical pipelines, databases and reporting methods that turn raw genomic SARS-CoV-2 data into information that is useful to public health officials. At a stretch I could call myself a bioinformatician, but I think that title's more appropriate for the people who write the underlying tools, whereas I simply (and gratefully) implement them.

What are your day-to-day tasks that you perform in your position?    
Being in a data-focussed role, I spend much of my time writing shell scripts and running them on an HPC, or writing R code for downstream analyses. Summarising and reporting the results of our routine analyses is also part of my working week. That said, the program I'm involved with is rapidly winding down, so I'm spending more time writing manuscripts and investigating other microbial public health threats for future projects.

What do you like best about your job?    
Many things. Although my role originally included wet and dry-lab work, I have a strong preference for dry-lab and was given the freedom to concentrate on that and develop my dry-lab skills. The workplace environment at WEHI is also excellent, and I feel equally challenged and supported in my role.

What do you dislike about your job?    
It's hard to think of anything, but giving presentations probably qualifies as a dislike. Nevertheless, doing it on a regular basis has improved my public speaking.

If your job is outside of academia, what is similar and what is different about your current job and your terminal position in academia?    
WEHI is semi-academic, so similarities would be the high number of postgrad students conducting research, and the institute's emphasis on education and knowledge sharing. A difference to pure academia would be the easy access to expert advice and technology, which was a challenge at times during my PhD research.

How did your microbial ecology (or academic) education prepare you for your current position?
My microbial ecology education equipped me with a fantastic set of wet and dry-lab skills, and refined my scientific writing. More generally, my academic journey taught me that to make progress you often need to be brave and just go for it — although I technically qualify as an early career scientist, I didn't start my scientific life until my 40's, after a 25 year career in graphic arts.    

What skills do you wish you learned during your educational process that would better prepare you for your current role (e.g. machine learning, management skills, etc.)?     
It would have been good to receive some (or more) training in coding and statistics – like many scientists, I'm mostly self-taught. Also, money makes the science world go 'round, so it would have been good to get some insights into the grant application process.

Do you have any recommendations and/or tips for early career microbial ecologists looking for jobs similar to yours?        
Cast your net wide and don't dismiss job opportunities because they don't match your 'Plan A'. At worst an RA role can be an excellent stepping stone to a research position, and at best you could find that it's the perfect fit for your skills and personality, as it was for me.