Switching from Computer Engineering to Synthetic Biology

MARCH 4TH, 2020 AT 4:27 PM

Douglas Densmore is an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston Univeristy. A computer engineer, Densmore’s research focuses on the development of tools for the specification, design, and assembly of synthetic biological systems, drawing upon his experience with embedded system-level design and electronic design automation. He is also the director of the Cross-disciplinary Integration of Design Automation Research group at the University, where his research team develops computational and experimental tools for synthetic biology. Additionally, along with key Principal Investigators Wilson Wong and Mo Khalil, Densmore leads the Living Computing Project, an effort to create a toolbox of catalogued biological parts that can be used to engineer organisms with predictable results, funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

I am a computer engineer working in Synthetic Biology. Between my research at Boston University and two associated biotechnology companies (Lattice Automation and Asimov) I have been working at the intersection of computing and biology for 12+ years. I have not taken a formal biology course since 9th grade and only have spent about three months doing experimental laboratory work. How did I go from a PhD student at UC Berkeley working on embedded system design to a professor with a wetlab working on bio-design automation tools for synthetic biology?

My scientific journey – carving my path

Part of my story is here. The long story short is that I saw that one field (synthetic biology) was in need of many techniques, tools, and approaches from another (computer science/engineering). I was at a natural decision point (PhD to Post Doc) where I could spend a dedicated 2-3 years on a new topic. If that did not pan out, I could then simply go back to my “old life” as a computer engineer and get a job in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was also able to take risks since I had few significant family or financial responsibilities (not married, no children, no house). Most importantly, I found a new source of energy in this emerging field that was lacking in my previous research. I found that if I built new software tools, researchers were eager to try them out, provide feedback, and help point me in the right direction. After about a year of working the field, I was hooked, and there was no turning back.

Convergent researchers and the future of science and technology

Interdisciplinary research is increasingly becoming important to solve many of today’s complex problems. If done correctly, projects that bring together expertise from a variety of sources combine to create better results and often avoid incremental advances. Switching fields to become part of an interdisciplinary research area come with some pretty big potential rewards. These include the opportunity to disrupt a field or to make a whole new one! If you are quickly seeing opportunities as opposed to pitfalls, switching fields might be for you.

The point of this short article is to illustrate 10 tangible tips that I think you should consider if you are thinking about switching scientific fields1. They are in no particular order and not meant to be exhaustive. I am sure you will think of your own list, but this will serve as a first litmus test and if you can’t answer these questions or incorporate these points in your process you should find out the answers before fully making any major career change.

Tangible Tips

  • Put aside your ego – The only way to really move into a new field is to be humble, listen to people, and be flexible in your approach. You are not going to be the expert any more. You may go from being the biggest voice in the room to the smallest. Your new job is to be someone that grows and helps to solve new challenges based on your unique point of view.

  • Bring your background to the new field – A key value add will be your experience, insights, and expertise in your original field. To the extent that you can maintain aspects of your previous experiences/interests, the better off you will be. This is what will make you unique and actually start to create new hybrid opportunities. In my case, I was (am) one of the few people that actually have worked in Electronic Design Automation that was proposing similar ideas in biology. This gave me both credibility as well as connections and vision. If you can’t leverage much of your old career field it might be a warning sign that you might not add significant enough value to a new career to prevent being overshadowed by others with more experience.

  • Don’t burn bridges – Be sure to maintain a path back to your old field (at least for the first couple years) in the event your switch does not work out. That could be as simple as staying up to date on research developments, attending conferences, or maintaining connections with colleagues. If things don’t work out, you should have a vision/story of how your brief time away actually made you “better” in your original field (new insights, experiences, etc.).

  • Separate the “job” from the “field” – I have seen many people say they don’t like a field when what they really don’t like is the job. Be sure to explore other jobs or slight “pivots” from your current focus that you might like before you make a big switch to a new area.

  • Don’t worry about knowing “everything” – I have a PhD in electrical engineering. I am never going to have a PhD in biology. If I waited until I knew everything about synthetic biology, I would have never switched. You simply need to know “enough”. Take advantage of opportunities for on-the-job training or short courses you can use to build your skillset. What you don’t know might actually be an advantage since you will ask questions others would not think to ask.

  • Hobby vs. Career – I love classic arcade games. I also know that that can be a hobby and I don’t need to make that my career. If your field change can be a hobby you might want to reconsider switching fields. Programming is a good example of this. Many fields can incorporate computation without having to completely change fields. You can learn to program on the weekends or free time. Many companies allow for personal development projects where you can investigate other interests.

  • Switch vs. Modify – Depending on what you are doing, you might be able to modify your existing career to include the new field. This could include adding additional computational or experimental work, adding management opportunities, or working more directly with new customers in your fields of interest. Temporary modifications are a good way to test the waters before making a full-fledged switch.

  • Evaluate your progress at regular intervals – Be sure to take a critical look at your progress regularly (e.g. every quarter). Are you happy? Are you contributing to the organization? Are you getting more proficient in your new field? Figure out the questions that make sense for you and be sure to objectively evaluate them regularly.

  • Find a mentor in the new field – Make sure that you can find someone that understands your journey and is supportive of helping you grow. These people should be helpful in setting up professional networks, provide educational opportunities, and serve as a sounding board for your questions/concerns during your journey.

  • Have an external support system - Make sure you have a support system OUTSIDE of your career. This could be friends or family that are going to help motivate and support you as you make what could be a painful transition. The people that you support also need to understand the new commitment you are making and be on board so that they can support you AND so you can make sure to continue to support them as you get busy during the switch.

I hope these 10 tips are helpful to you as you contemplate making a career switch. I know they have served me well and I hope they are equally valuable to you. Please share with “Advice to a Scientist” any additional tips you have found useful. I would love to see what others have learned and find ways to incorporate them into my journey.

Useful Resources

This Nature articles explores the experience of an accountant-turned-researcher, providing another example of how all scientific roads do not wind the same way.


This Science article provides more perspectives on the reasons why researchers switch their fields and the potential benefits of doing so.


What happens when a radiation physicist ventures into cancer treatment?


This blog post provides another perspective on the importance of switching fields as a postdoctoral researcher.


This article provides advice for switching fields for your PhD.


This article showcases 5 academics who have switched fields in the middle of their career.


1 I should note that I am very solidly an engineer, not experimentally focused, and funded by engineering efforts (e.g. NSF and DARPA). I point this out since this process might be very different for traditional scientific fields with strong experimental requirements, timelines, and funding.

Comments and questions

Create an account or sign in to leave your thoughts or ask a question.

No comments were found.