Alumni Profiles Series: Laura Kavanaugh
Laura Kavanaugh received her Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics from Duke University in 2008. Before pursuing her Ph.D. at Duke, she worked at the Johnson Space Center for United Space Alliance as a manager for Space Shuttle Operations for 13 years. She was also a mother of a 2-month old baby when she attended Duke and had another child while in graduate school. After getting her Ph.D., she worked at Syngenta in Research Triangle Park as a Senior Computational Biologist and Team Lead for Comparative Genomics for nearly 12 years. She is now in the process of starting her own company called Genome Insights LLC.
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO PURSUE A PH.D. AFTER WORKING AT UNITED SPACE ALLIANCE FOR 13 YEARS?
I’ve always been very interested in science and engineering. After I graduated with my B.S. in Chemical Engineering and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue, I started working at the Johnson Space Center. I felt that my job there was a lot more focused on executing what already existed, like making the system work. There was creativity involved in planning the missions, but it was more about executing perfectly, because you can’t make mistakes in the space program. However, I wanted to get back into feeding my curiosity about science and how the world works, so I was really drawn to go and get my Ph.D.. I started taking classes at the local university and got really interested in genetics. I also found out about the University Program in Genetics and Genomics (UPGG) at Duke and it seemed really broad and it had a lot of different professors that I could potentially work with. And since I didn’t know what I wanted to do, it offered a lot of flexibility that I was looking for.
WHAT PROFESSIONAL AND CAREER PLANS DID YOU HAVE IN MIND WHEN YOU WERE PURSUING YOUR PH.D.?
Honestly, I didn’t have a great, brilliant master plan when I started my Ph.D. I always thought I would go into industry, but I wasn’t sure how that would happen, and I wasn’t sure what industry I wanted to go into. I came with an open mind and followed my interests, and they led me to things I really loved, which turned out to be bioinformatics, and that’s where I went into industry. Plus, I love that Duke is located here in Research Triangle Park (RTP). Actually, that was one of many great reasons I selected to come to Duke because I wanted to be able to stay in the area. There are so many opportunities in biotech here. It makes the transition into industry relatively easy.
I guess if I were going to share any ideas with current Ph.D.s it’s that you don’t have to know everything or have the perfect plan. You actually might benefit by keeping an open mind about opportunities, because the more you can talk to different professors and get exposed to a lot of different ideas, you might discover some exciting opportunities you never knew about.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK AT SYNGENTA?
I worked at Syngenta for almost 12 years and it’s really a wonderful place to work in industry. They have a fascinating research facility here in RTP, and it gave me an opportunity to work with people from all across the world. We provided computational analysis for everyone across Syngenta. We did agricultural research, so there were all kinds of different crops that we worked with. The huge amount of repeats in the plant genome poses a lot of challenges. We were able to test out cutting-edge technology on a wide variety of different challenges in order to provide plants with new capabilities. We had the opportunity to apply the latest computational methods to try to find those things. So, it was a very exciting place to work with a lot of variety and global impact.
HOW DID YOU FIND RESEARCH IN INDUSTRY DIFFERENT FROM RESEARCH IN ACADEMIA?
In academia, you typically spend all your time on one question for a very long time (five to six years); you get very, very deep into that question, and you have a small, tight community of deep research.
In industry it’s much different. Our projects tended to last six months to a year. For example, you’re working on tomato and cucumber, corn and soybean all simultaneously. You would have multiple projects going on at a time and they would have a shorter timeframe. So, in industry it was a greater breadth of projects, but not the depth. There’s also a lot more people interaction too. It’s a lot more about bringing groups of people with very diverse understanding together and doing things quickly and dynamically. You want to deliver results quickly as well. It’s much more people-oriented, and more fast-paced.
YOUR CAREER IN THE COMPANY TRANSITIONED FROM A COMPUTATIONAL BIOLOGIST TO A LEADER/MANAGER ROLE. HOW DID YOU LIKE MANAGING?
I really enjoy leading teams and driving direction. I like to think about what we should be doing as a group and be strategic, which is also another opportunity in industry that you have.
I also love the diversity of people in industry and trying to bring them together. So that’s kind of my natural inclination, which is also probably why I was drawn to industry. At the same time, being a manager is also really hard since you’re dealing with different kinds of people coming from diverse cultures.
To be able to manage well, it’s really important to take management courses and learn people skills. You have to be extremely patient. It’s a very different skillset from what you learned in your Ph.D. In contrast with doing your Ph.D., where you deal almost exclusively with science, being a manager really pulls you out of that. If you have a vision for where you think the company needs to be going, that’s a place where you can launch those ideas and drive them within the company.
TELL US ABOUT THE STARTUP (GENOME INSIGHTS) YOU ARE LEADING.
It’s still very new. As the coronavirus hit the world, I was trying to think of something that I could contribute that people really needed. I’m interested in doing environmental sampling to identify coronavirus on surfaces. This can be especially important in places where people are vulnerable to the coronavirus, like elderly care facilities.
We use molecular methods to reveal where the virus is, so people can take action.
The company is still in its early stages, and I don’t know where it will land, but I am excited to be creating my own destiny on this fun new adventure.
WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES OF DUKE?
I found graduate school to be quite challenging, especially considering the fact that I had two young sons while attending. I put a lot of pressure on myself to graduate and was probably too serious and stressed. I wish I could have stepped back and enjoyed the journey more. I want to encourage graduate students to build a solid emotional support system. Of course, my husband and family were an essential part of mine. But connecting with your fellow students is really helpful too. They know what you are dealing with and can be there through the ups and downs. Probably my favorite memory was having lunch and chatting with other grad students in the lab and having the camaraderie of that shared journey.
Miko (Mengyi) Liu
Ph.D. student, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics
Miko Liu is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics (CBB) program under the School of Medicine. She works in Dr. Simon Gregory’s lab, where her research focus is to develop computational tools to analyze gene expression data to understand the microenvironments of brain tumor and other diseases. She received her B.S. in Bioinformatics from UC San Diego in 2019. In her free time, she enjoys dancing and playing musical instruments. After graduating from Duke, she aspires to apply her science background and leadership skills to work in a biotech consulting firm.