Alumni Profiles Series: Sabah Oney
Sabah Oney graduated from Dr. Bruce Sullenger’s laboratory at Duke with his Ph.D. in the University Program in Genetics and Genomics in 2008. He went on to work for a spinoff startup company from the Sullenger laboratory. He then earned his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2012. Dr. Oney was part of a successful team at Ariosa Diagnostics, and is now starting a new venture with Alector as their Head of Business Development, Partnerships, and Operations.
During your graduate studies, what career plans did you have in mind?
Even in the early stages, I wanted my career to have a patient-centric focus. I knew I wanted to do translational science so that the work I was doing would benefit patients directly. In graduate school, I was able to achieve this goal by working on a few clinically relevant projects in Bruce’s Lab.
Dr. Sullenger’s main appointment is in the Department of Surgery so the research is always trying to solve problems for patients in the clinic. I was able to interact with many surgeons and clinicians, and to gain an understanding of the business side, I also participated in the Duke Startup Challenge and took a Health Sector Management course at Fuqua to learn more about what needed to be done to turn an early stage discovery to life saving medicines. My ideal situation was not only to do great scientific work but also have a clinical and business understanding of what the research means and how to get it to patients as efficiently as possible.
Why did you decide to pursue your M.B.A.?
After graduating, I went to work at b3 bio, a spinoff company from the Sullenger lab. I had an amazing two years there. I learned about what it takes to push an early-phase academic company through the industry process. But, I’m an impatient person. I knew I could learn the business side of startup companies by osmosis in a decade, by working in a great start up environment and learning everything I could. However, I also thought I could take two years of my life to go into a top M.B.A. program to accelerate this process and come out with a much more balanced experience —not just on the scientific side with my Ph.D., but also on the business side. There are very successful Ph.D.s and very successful M.B.A.s, but I saw it as a competitive advantage to have both. I understand science and I also understand business, which means I can act as the bridge between a scientific team and its ultimate customers.
How was the transition from being a pure scientist to more of a hybrid scientist – businessman?
That was harder than expected at the beginning, especially on a personal level. I’ve always thought of myself as a scientist first, and I still do, but to me science was very closely related to doing more hands-on work. It was part of my identity. To leave that part of me behind and pursue my M.B.A.—going into a position where I don’t put on gloves everyday — was a tough transition because of who I was and how I viewed myself. But I reminded myself of my overall goal: I want to be elemental in bringing life-changing science to patients. That goal hasn’t changed at all and no one can take away the fact that I am a scientist.
Also, critical and analytical thinking skills, curiosity, and innovation in answering seemingly unsolvable questions are all hallmarks of a great scientist, but these attributes can also be applied in business. We’re asking the same questions, just in a different field. After my Ph.D., I was at a point in my life where I knew what I needed to do to reach my goal, and for me that was a transition into the business side of science.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
First, it is critical to surround yourself with great mentors. It is the single best thing you can do at this stage of your life as a graduate student. Stay in very close touch with them—I still speak to Bruce maybe once a week. Spend more energy into surrounding yourself with phenomenal people that are in your network at Duke now. When you’re looking for jobs reach out to the Duke alumni network, particularly alumni that are doing work that excites you.
Second, you need to view yourself as an enabler. How are you going to enable a company, a lab, or any team for that matter to move forward, to be better? Make yourself irreplaceable by doing things that will make a big difference for your team – and things will fall into place. Surround yourself with great mentors and enable everyone around you to be better.
Ph.D. candidate, Biomedical Engineering
Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering. She studies genome editing for the correction of Duchenne muscular dystrophy.