The main goal of industrial microbiology is to develop new, innovative microbial products for different applications. Taking the technology from the lab to the market demands skills in science, business and leadership. We interviewed Dr. Debbie Yaver, Managing Director of Novozymes, who is highly successful in translational research. With over 40 issued patents and 20 peer-reviewed publications, she is the recipient of the Rosalind Franklin Award from the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Novozymes is the world’s largest supplier of industrial enzymes and microorganisms for applications in food, water, energy and climate change remediation. Yaver also served as the President of the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology.
What inspired you to focus on microbiology in your scientific career?
My path to where I am now was not straight or planned. From a young age, I was interested in nature and science. I started out studying physics in college and changed my major because I did not see many students like myself studying physics and wondered who my colleagues would be. Then, I spent time taking other science courses, and microbiology excited me because of the diversity and impact that microbes have on humans, animals, plants and the environment. When I received my undergraduate degree, I was not sure if I wanted to go to medical school or graduate school. I worked for 2 years at SRI International conducting research. Based on some soul searching and knowing that I wanted to have a family, I decided to go to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in microbiology, where I studied protein sorting and secretion. When I completed my Ph.D., I took an academic postdoctoral position and assumed I would go the academic route. One of the new professors mentioned to me that a biotechnology company was starting a site just across the freeway, and they were looking for scientists with my expertise. I decided to apply, hoping to get some practice in interviewing. After my interview, I quickly got an offer and decided to give industry a try. I said yes and have not looked back in 28 plus years. I enjoy working for a company that discovers and develops enzymes and whole microbial products that make a difference in the world.
What is it like working at Novozymes?
I have been at Novozymes for more than 28 years, which says a lot. I work daily with fantastic colleagues who are passionate about science and working to deliver solutions to the world that make a difference. It is also inspiring to be part of a global research and development function and seeing the impact this brings to our projects and strategy.
How is working in industry different from academia?
In industry, you can translate scientific breakthroughs into solutions that make a difference in the world. This means you need to know what problem you are trying to address and the customer who is willing to pay for a product that solves it. The sooner a product is commercialized, the more value a company can get from it. Often your competitor is developing solutions for the same problems, so the first to launch an effective product often gets the largest market share. This means that as a scientist working in industry, you are given targets that have both a technical goal as well as a timeline. Also, you must be open to stop working on a current project if the company decides for one reason or another that it should be paused or stopped and then be ready to take on a new project or task.
What kinds of skills do you need to excel in industry?
Besides being a technical expert, you need to be innovative, a team player, an effective communicator, goal-driven and flexible, as well as someone who does not settle for how we do things today. The ability to network, stay active in the scientific community and be willing to look outside the company for technology or ideas is also valued.
What advice do you have for microbiology students who want to go into industry?
As an undergraduate, be sure to get some practical experience doing research, such as a summer internship at a company or an internship in a lab on campus. If you are a graduate student, seek out an internship or postdoc in industry and be sure to network and reach out to folks in industry. You should also consider learning skills to manage and analyze big data sets. The ability to code or write scripts is in high demand in industry.
How do you know whether the technologies in your company have market demand?
All the technologies and products my colleagues and I have worked on at Novozymes fit the company strategy. Like other companies, Novozymes has a project portfolio that fits the current corporate strategy and adds the most value to the business.
How do you see the enzyme market changing in the future?
Enzymes and whole microbe products can help solve many of the world’s challenges, including being able to feed the growing population, enabling renewable fuel production and maintaining gut health in animals and humans. There is no doubt that new innovative applications of enzymes and whole microbes will meet these needs and expand the market worldwide.
What advice do you have for women in science?
I would encourage women and underrepresented minorities to not be afraid to speak up and share their ideas. At times, they might be the only minority or woman in the room or discussion, and their opinion is valuable and should be heard.