Focus on What You Know, and Your Strengths

Denise Merkle believes consultants should be judicious about their skill sets
Photo of a hand holding an illustration of a glowing lightbulb containing a brain, representing the concept of "knowing your strengths"
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

As the president of your own small company, looking back, how would you assess the business environment in which you operate since Covid hit in early 2020, and how do you see it evolving over the next year or two?

As globally life changing as the pandemic has been, neither my company nor I took any terrible damage (for which I am beyond grateful). What I call 'COVID Captivity' was extremely challenging on a personal level, but the main change as the pandemic eases is the return to in-person interactions uncomplicated by expedition-like preparations: heading into the lab without significant pre-planning for uninfective appearances, talking to clients and knowing what they actually look like, and attending conferences with real -and not video- presenters.

My own experiences aside, the use of technology to develop novel programs - such as SCHB's weekly Zoom events, held consistently since the beginning of the lockdown - yielded significant bonuses, which will persist for diverse projects when we can all escape back into our lives.

If the world chooses to permit it, the work environment can be much less focused on in-person time at work or spent on a project, and much more dedicated to efficiency and effectiveness: Mindful use of time, energy, and talents, as opposed to just existing in a physical space for a prescribed length of time.

When did you decide a laboratory career wasn’t what you most wanted?

I didn't decide to move away from the laboratory, although I recognized fairly early in my career that advancement in science often equals less lab time.

Did you make a proactive decision to pursue a career outside the lab, or did an opportunity present itself?

The latter. While I was actively seeking a lab-focused position, the opportunity to consult appeared. Many of SciConsult, Inc's projects don't require hands-on lab work - but a number of them do.

What were your priorities as you assessed the various non-traditional career opportunities available to you?

Priorities were to make enough money to support the life I wanted, and not have a supervisor who was difficult to work with. I didn't assess various non-career options. The opportunity to become a consultant appeared, and I took it.

Was this a rational, logical decision, or did your gut just tell you this was the right answer?

Both. It became obvious that I could make a living by consulting, and my gut feeling was that, as a consultant, it was my own fault if my boss was a jerk.

It sounds like you may have encountered a challenging supervisor or two along the way. What traits or qualities make for a high-performing supervisor?

Ah. This is dependent on the supervisor and the employee. Everyone needs and wants different levels of interaction with others. Showing respect for co-workers is a given - for all.

The ability to listen to what is being said and adjust for communication styles is necessary for a good supervisor. It's crucial to understand how someone else conveys information, and not respond to what one assumes is being said.

A high-performing supervisor acts quickly if a member of the team isn't functioning as needed, developing a logical plan to remedy problems while demonstrably valuing the employees who are performing their jobs well.

Regardless of ease of interacting with particular supervisees, an effective supervisor does not act based on personal bias, but dispassionately assesses data in making intelligent decisions. In addition, a good  leader buffers employees from an organization's politics, and supports supervisees in problem situations. Note that support doesn't mean blindly touting, but refraining from throwing people under the bus.

Early in your career, you worked as a chemical technical professional at NIH, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. What sticks out in your mind about those jobs?

The science was really fun and exciting.

Skillful negotiating is a fundamental building block of success.

Expert chemical technical professionals are critical components of successful scientific projects, and lab techs know a mind-boggling amount of science and scientific techniques.

Perhaps unique to me, it was a revelation that doing well in one's classes is actually an important part of college. A totally unexpected need to further my education hit me very early in my career. I was a tech for quite a while before I overcame the fear of causing an upheaval in my life and made the move to grad school. Despite great promise shown in 1-12 education, I was an abysmally undistinguished undergraduate. The very trite phrase ‘Never Say Never’ definitely applies here.

Although I'd worked as a technical professional for investigators who insisted I should go to grad school, all I wanted was to be come a Pro Rally navigator. I was going to fund my rally car by working as a lab tech.  As an undergrad, it never occurred to me that I might actually need a lot of what I was supposed to learn in college. Going back to school was tough. Absolutely worth it, but tough. I never did Pro Rally, but the education is great compensation.

In what ways, either directly or indirectly, does your non-traditional career make use of your previous scientific training?

Every single project is significantly based on my previous scientific training (and also on a lot of the formal education I had to catch up on very quickly). The business-related training I've developed along the way is very helpful for my career, too.

Looking back, how would you assess the performance of your university in making you aware of non-traditional career opportunities? What might it do differently?           

Going into industry from college or grad school felt like crossing to the dark side. I never sought any instruction on anything but a research career, and I wouldn't have cared if someone had attempted to point out options. Maybe someone did try to enlighten me, and I missed it. I have no data and can't actually answer.

If your non-traditional career choice would have been known to you as a junior in high school, would it have impacted your choice of where to attend college? Pursue an advanced degree?

No, and No.

What is the most gratifying aspect of this career?

Successful problem solving via the application of scientific knowledge.

What advice do you have for someone interesting in moving into this field?

Even before you've made the decision to pursue life as a consultant, join ACS Division of Small Chemical Businesses (SCHB), and benefit from all the members' expertise, as well as the informative programs SCHB offers.

Also keep in mind that your money will be made via what you know, and your strengths. Be prepared and willing to hire those professional services in which you aren't expert. Don't plan to practice law if you're not an attorney, design websites if you're not a WebGuru, do your own books if you're not a good accountant, etc.

What is the most important thing to share with someone who’s thinking about making a career pathway change?

Well, there are many, many parameters that are important when contemplating such a move, however my top two are:

(a) 'Never Give Up' is an idiotic saying. Assess where you are and give up or keep going as it's intelligent to do so.        

(b) At some point, fear will either stop you, or you'll push beyond it. If you want something badly enough, the fear won't be a barrier. You can break your neck falling off the sofa reaching for the potato chips - don't let fear keep you from leaving the couch and running out the door to a new opportunity (unless it would be illogical to keep going, of course).

Widening the lens a bit, would you expect opportunities in non-traditional chemistry careers to expand, contract, or maintain in the future? What leads you to think that way?

Although this is an interesting question, I admit I'd never considered it. Given the number of small businesses that have been started in recent years, I suspect that development of non-traditional careers of all sorts will persist - chemistry included. The multi-disciplinary requirements of science will almost certainly continue to spawn novel hyphenated careers as well as hyphenated techniques.

If you could select a total of three* scientists/business leaders – deceased or alive – to support you on the project of your choice, what project would you pick, and who you would you put on the team?

I haven't researched the project to see if it's already in the works, or has already been done (so don't judge - or write e-mails critiquing what I don't know), but I'd love to have a project that compares and contrasts the genomes of ovarian cancer patients and their tumors with the genomes of non-cancer patients, as well as the proteins that are present in ovarian cancer but not in benign situations, and then determine which of the cancer-specific proteins or nucleic acid sequences are good targets for intervention. 

Dream Team -

This is almost impossibly difficult, since the team for something like this would be huge, and I don't want to exclude any of the highly accomplished, innovative, wonderful scientists I know and with whom I would gladly work, but here goes…

Constance M. Hendrickson, PhD, Principal at Ar’kon Consultants and Director of Badderloch Woad, Inc., is a given on any project, especially those that require brilliance, inventiveness, and mad chemistry skills. Dr. Hendrickson is integral to the core of the Dream Team - so I’m not relinquishing one of my three choices to add her expertise. 

Dream Team 1st round picks:

Anne-Marie Baker, PhD (1964-2022): Brilliant, skilled in genomics, intellectual property, database construction, fabulous scientist - and easy to get along with.

Jeremy M. Berg, PhD: Brilliant, innovative, fabulous at directing nucleic acid and protein research, able to conquer multi-dimensional space (and therefore interpret mass amounts of data) in a single bound, integrates think tank-y vision with practical science.

Jonathan Rothberg, PhD (whom I do not know): Brilliant, innovative, focuses on identifying and solving problems, high throughput DNA sequencing capability, has a highly functional R&D lab on Gene Machine, which would nicely assuage my superyacht fetish.

* 4th of 3 - John A. Fortkort, MS, JD: Because protecting  Intellectual Property is crucial, and if you're going to do so, you need a brilliant, innovative patent attorney with a focus on novel therapeutics. 

Denise Merkle, President & Consultant, SciConsult, Inc.

Denise Merkle is President & Consultant, SciConsult, Inc. She is also Director, Badderloch Woad, Inc.

She received her PhD in chemistry from The Johns Hopkins University, and a BA in biochemistry from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

She currently holds 12 issued US Patents, including six in the Cultured BugsTM portfolio. More IP is pending.

Denise is also active with the Fort Worth Life Sciences Coalition (FWLSC), the ACS Division of Small Chemical Businesses, and the ACS Dallas Fort-Worth Local Section. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Related Articles