Interview with GSU’s George Pierce: Intersections in Academia and Industry

Interview with GSU’s George Pierce: Intersections in Academia and Industry

By: Joshua Renfroe, MS, MPH
PhD Candidate Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Georgia State University
ELN Georgia State University Liaison

George Pierce has over 40 years of experience in applied microbiology and biotechnology and has been at Georgia State University since 2000 where he is currently Director of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

What is your philosophy to prepare graduate students for industry jobs?

Medical schools look for the best students, law schools look for the best students, and industry looks for the best students. Industry is not plan B because you are not good enough to get into med school or law school, likewise- law school is not plan B if you cannot get into med school or industry. No company wants mediocre. Industry wants to see diligence and rigor in a person’s curriculum- they don’t want to see 3 fluff courses and a technical course, they want to see 3 technical courses and maybe an elective. I read an article where 46 women CEOs from industry were interviewed. These individuals had either a STEM or finance background. Professional schools and industry both require preparation and planning. For students looking to get into biotech- do your homework on what is needed to be competitive in this field, just as you would to prepare for getting into medical school.


What is the best way to prepare graduate students for industry?

It’s always been networking. If you are in an academic lab- you have network in academia and if you are in industry research- you have a network in industry. For example, if you are looking for a post doc position, you probably would not want to talk to HR. Same is true for industry. Get past the resume stage and get into interview stage. Also related to your network, if a company picks up one person from that lab, they look at other people from that lab. Once they see what some people look like who come out of that lab, they can predict what other people look like coming out of that lab. For internship programs, universities preselect students before going. Not just anybody can apply. The universities want the best candidates out there, so the company will be impressed and come back for more. That’s why the successful institutions always become more successful.


What is the difference between academic and industry funding mechanisms? How does the research differ?

The US government and industry spends nearly equal amounts of money on research. If the focus is only on government grants, then half of the money being spent on research is missed. In industry, most of your work is solicited. In government, most of the work is unsolicited, meaning you submit for the grant. If a company solicits you to write a proposal, then odds are in your favor- 1:3, 1:2, or maybe more. How do you get to the point where the odds are in your favor? Build your reputation over time. You must build credibility and a strong a strong background. How does the company know you can do the job as opposed to someone else? Having the reputation. While a research project may still be risky – you are probably the best person to do it. Government and industry grants have this in common. A researcher can be good at both government and industry proposals, but learning that translation takes time. Things are not done the same way in industry as they are in academia. The way industry assesses research and the people doing research is different. The researcher must learn the difference.

Much of the fundamental research is hypothesis-driven and much of applied research is not. A great deal of the research done in industry is fundamental. You need to understand something before you can apply it in many cases. You need to have fundamental understanding before applying it.


What motivated your transition from industry to academia?

Something I’ve always wanted to do. Thought it would be closer to the end of my career, but it was not. Research comes down to people. So where do you get the people? How do you work with the best people? In industry, you get people out of university and develop them from there. In the university, you start earlier on in the development process.


What kind of training and mentoring did you see in industry?

The company had 10 interns per year for 10 years. At the time, this put them at the higher end of companies that had robust intern programs. Universities like these collaborations because they can say to students: this is what you can expect. They also like to announce that this is where our students go after graduation. They build a lot of hard data from these collaborations. Senior people and vice presidents would remark anytime they were asked- that an internship was the deciding factor in their career and that it gave them direction and focus. High-level people always supported internship collaborations. Students would be put on meaningful projects so they could go back and tell about their experience. Internships also facilitate hiring and visibility for the company.