We had the good fortune of connecting with Jim Wong and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jim, have there been any changes in how you think about work-life balance?
My work has defined my identity from the moment that I pipetted for the first time as an undergraduate biology major. The balance has always shifted in favor of my career as I progressed from a graduate student studying how cells divide to a postdoctoral fellow adding to our knowledge of neurodevelopment and into my professional career as a research scientist in drug development for unmet medical needs in oncology. The work gave me greater and greater purpose, but at the same time, I realized that other aspects to my life also needed to expand. My photography is an exercise in experiencing the world through travel, and the creative outlet is a needed and welcome respite when the science becomes just a bit too all-encompassing.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I was one of 200 undergrads in my class at Caltech — that’s where I realized that being a big fish in high school wasn’t anything to write home about. In college, I met people my age (and some younger) who were truly brilliant, and it was a humbling experience to watch my fellow students excel in physics, math, and chemistry. But, I found my niche in the Meyerowitz Lab when a postdoc posted an opening for an undergrad to help with her research into floral development in the Arabidopsis genetic model. After that first taste of research, I was hooked. I went on auto-pilot and went to graduate school at Stanford University in the Fang Lab to study the mechanical structure of the mitotic spindle that segregates chromosomes to each of the two daughter cells at each cell division. The traditional path would have lead me to an academic postdoctoral fellowship and ultimately to a faculty position, but while I was enamored by the science, that lingering doubt about my abilities I developed as an undergrad gnawed at me…. Nonetheless, I was presented with an amazing opportunity to do a postdoctoral fellowship in the Tessier-Lavigne Lab at Genentech, where I studied how the nervous system gets wired together during development… an opportunity that was, essentially, auto-pilot again. I met brilliant scientists there — but how did I measure up during those four years?
It turns out that I didn’t have to think too long about being self-critical. My postdoc advisor suddenly announced that he was moving the lab to Rockefeller University and, on the same weekend, a friend of my told me about a newly opened position in a small biotech named OncoMed nearby. So, auto-pilot again, and I got comfortable as a research scientist in the San Francisco Bay Area… perhaps too comfortable. My wife, an exemplary scientist in her own right, got a faculty position at CU Anschutz Medical Campus, and I had never even been to Denver before. The choice was obvious, it was auto-pilot — of course we were going to move to Denver. But, what would I do in Colorado? My entire network was in California! Despite the fear and doubt, I landed softly on the Front Range, and I’ve carved out some amazing opportunities of my own at Array Biopharma and Pfizer Boulder Research and Development.
So, was it really auto-pilot? Were decisions made for me? Or, did I develop my career in a way where I could take advantage of opportunities as I walked into them?
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Biology started out as an observational science. “Hey, I’ve never seen that flower before!” “This animal in this strange land looks a lot like something else that I’m familiar with.” The symmetry and reason in biology are reflected in the natural world around us, and even in the what we have created as the human species. Hearkening back to my days as a plant biologist, I’ve always had a soft spot for cataloging and displaying plants, and the Denver Botanic Garden piques both my scientific and photographic interest. Further afield, Rocky Mountain National Park is a great backdrop for observing nature, whether it is a marmot peering from behind a rock or a gust of wind that knocks a tripod lens-first into Sky Pond. And, of course, nothing beats seeing the evidence of seasons changing in the fall when you’re standing in the bitter cold with the Maroon Bells reflected in the glassy lake at dawn.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
We moved to Colorado because my wife had an amazing opportunity to join the faculty at CU Anschutz Medical Center. I left the familiarly large biotech environment of the San Francisco Bay Area for, at the time, a completely unknown landscape on the Front Range. I wasn’t sure how I was going to land here, but her opportunity became my opportunity, and I owe her for my chance to contribute to the nascent biotech industry in Boulder.