Thursday, April 17, 2014

Greg Spooner: A Medical Device Physicist

Greg Spooner is a physicist and engineer with a B.S. in applied physics ('85) from UC Davis and a PhD in physics ('92), also from UC Davis. Greg works in the fields of medical devices, medical laser applications, optical engineering and intellectual property. He has worked for laser companies Coherent, IntraLase and Cutera, and has served on the Board of Directors of the American Society for Lasers in Medicine and Surgery. Greg has been operating as an independent consultant to the medical device industry for five years, and is presently developing a new medical device startup company.

In Brief

During our 45-minute Skype interview we discussed major milestones and decision points in his education and career. Greg was very open about initial concerns about employment when he decided to major in physics, the discomforts in the transition from course work to research, and the importance of beer in his job search. Some of the useful things Greg got out of graduate school in physics: 1) A scrappy resourcefulness, 2) an ability to do back of the envelope estimates, and 3) a confidence in his ability to learn what needs to be learned.

Things Greg had to learn on the job: Tons! He knew about quantum mechanics and atomic physics but just because he had been hired by a laser company did not mean he actually knew anything about lasers! Greg discovered working was not just applying what he’d learned in school, just “turning the crank.” Instead, work was always going to involve more learning. He also had to learn on the job how to work as part of a group and how to lead a group. 

Greg paints a picture of a difficult job market for the physicist with only a bachelor’s degree. I have to say here if your plan is to enter the job market after a bachelor’s degree, you can do really well. There are also some things you should know that will help you to do well. This is a subject to which we’ll return, both with interviews of people who did launch successful careers without any physics education beyond the bachelor’s degree, and with discussion based on employment data collected by the American Institute of Physics.

The Interview

Q: How did you decide to major in Physics?

As with many college students, I think, it wasn’t a moment. It was more of an evolution. I actually landed in community college first, not completely sure what science or engineering path I would take. I started out studying a lot of the lower division Calculus and Engineering and Physics and Chemistry, and I found myself increasingly interested in the Physics classes. After about a year, I decided to do Physics. It’s the thing that interests me. I still struggled with how I was going to get a job, but I was pretty sure that I was going to major in Physics by the end of my first year of college.


Q: How big of a concern was the struggle to find a job?

I wouldn’t say it was back burner, but I also wouldn’t say that it was the primary thing. I really wanted to study what I was interested in, but I was pretty poor and so I knew that I would need to find a job. What I decided was: I’ll do both. I studied Engineering all the way through my undergraduate degree and I ended up with a degree in Applied Physics with specialties in Engineering. I kind of convinced myself through those undergraduate years that I could become some kind of engineer if I can’t make Physics work for a living. Then, it was in graduate school where I decided to become a physicist and not worry so much about the engineering and the job prospects. It will work itself out somehow.   

Q: How did you decide to go to graduate school?
In candor, it was a little bit like the decision to major in Physics. At my commencement junior year, I said I wasn’t going to be able to do that much with a Physics undergraduate degree. While I wanted to study Physics and was interested in learning more, I felt like I couldn’t get a job. I went through the process in that senior year of trying to get a job, doing the usual things seniors do, interviewing and cold-calling people, networking, without really any luck. It was partly a decision that was practical in nature and partly one where I decided that I really did want to study this stuff. Those two things came together gradually.
I wish I could tell a different story, and say I was driven from the very beginning, but it was really more of an evolutionary decision that I think that a lot of students find themselves in.
Q: Did you have any anxieties about starting graduate school at UC Davis? That period can be a fragile time. How was your experience?
It was definitely fragile, and maybe brutal at the same time, because it’s such a tough initial year or two. I did my first year of graduate school in Livermore at the lab. That decision was partly made because they actually offered a fair amount of support, but also because I thought that this could be a tremendous place to play around in the lab, an enormous playground of science and engineering. I went through the usual year there, struggling through the first year of the Physics program as everyone does, but also going through a bit of a crisis with my decision. I did not fit in with the culture. I felt like I was doubly damned in the sense that I was struggling with all of the heavy course work and having made the wrong decision. I spent that year also planning my escape, and the easiest thing to do, for me, was to escape back to the Davis Physics department. If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone somewhere else because I think it’s important for people to have a variety of experiences in their training. Definitely, that first year was fragile and brutal and fraught.

Q: Who became your adviser at UC Davis proper, and how did you connect with a research adviser?
When I landed back at Davis proper, it was such a relief. I spent a month just breathing again. It was great to come back. Of course, I ended up having to retake a lot of the classes because there wasn’t complete congruence between the curricula. It was a little bit like I was a first year student again, and I knew I wanted to study solid-state physics and its order and disorder topics. I was left with a really good impression with the professor who became my adviser, Larry Coleman. I took an undergraduate class in solid-state physics from him, and I felt like our interests were really closely aligned. I gravitated toward Larry in that first year.

Q: How was the transition for you from coursework to research?
That transition was a bit difficult to navigate because I felt a strong allegiance to coursework, and I was prioritizing that first, even as I was finishing my major courses. I felt like I had to do a good job; I was trained to be a studier. It was hard to let go of that, and I ended up putting off my research obligations and my research experience more than I should have. I remember at the time not feeling very good about it, like I really needed to be grabbing hold of this research stuff, but I have to do well in this course because it’s going to be on the comprehensive exam. I definitely struggled to let go of the coursework and embrace the research. I think my adviser was a little frustrated with me, too, because I kept not being around as much as I said I was going to be until my coursework was done.

Q: Once you could devote your time to research, what was your response to the process?
The “I suck at this” was kind of a dominant feeling at first, but as I matured I started feeling that less, and I stopped thinking about it. I just had so much to do, and I really wanted to get it done. I stopped worrying whether I sucked or not. But, at the beginning, there was definitely a feeling of “I don’t really know what I should be doing here.” I struggled with the formlessness of becoming a researcher and deciding what activities I should be engaging in. I remember spending a lot of time in the physical sciences library, where I was plowing through the stacks and reading papers and feeling like I should be down in the lab designing the next generation spectrometer. When I would go down there and try to figure out what I should design, I’d want to be reading about it in the library. I felt constantly torn between the activities I was doing and what I thought I should be doing. Again, that faded over time. You come to live with that discomfort and ambiguity about the right thing, and it doesn’t stop you from figuring it out. It’s okay to be uncomfortable with it.

Q: How did you get your first job?
It was beer that got me my first job. I did all the things you’re supposed to do to get a job outside of academia – resumes, tons of formal interviews, informal interviews, informational interviews, networking – and it was really going nowhere. My girlfriend at the time said, “Well, I know this guy, who’s connected to an interesting company, and we’re going to have a beer after your interview today. Why don’t you join in, and see if you can make a connection with him?” I said, “Nobody ever gets a job that way. That’s stupid. But, I’ll have a beer with your friend.” This guy happened to be good friends with someone who was running a division of a medical laser company and who happened to be looking for some talent. He connected us up, and that was the beginning of my modern career. If I hadn’t been trying to get a job, I probably wouldn’t have stumbled into the serendipitous situation. You have to be ready to do something good and to prove that you’re an able worker and researcher.

Q: How has working been different and similar from school? How have the skills you acquired in school supported what you have done professionally?
As a researcher with no budget, operating on a shoestring in an experimental setting, I had to get good at finding resources and people and materials. That kind of resourcefulness has really served me well. I remember my actual samples were manufactured by somebody at Xerox Park, who I’d basically talked into letting me use his molecular beam epitaxy machine. That kind of poking around to get what I need is something I use all the time now. Just this week, I went to one of the Hackerspace places and was trying to talk the guy into letting me ship eyeballs to his facility. Also, as an experimentalist, I learned to do a lot of estimation and back-of-the-envelope physics calculations. What’s important, what’s not important, how to quickly arrive at some estimate; that kind of rule-of-thumb-ness that I learned as an experimentalist I use every day. Yesterday I was helping a client to determine the right set of laser parameters to heat a particular kind of tissue. That kind of experimentalist sense has really served me well.

Q: What did you not learn in school that you had to learn on the job?
When I first started studying laser engineering, laser science, and clinical use of lasers, I didn’t actually know laser science. I felt a little bit like I was going back to school again and relearning the specific discipline. It didn’t daunt me because I knew how to learn things, but it was a bit of a surprise to me that I found myself in a situation where I’m studying so soon after grad school. I didn’t have the meta knowledge at the time to realize that this is the way it is always going to be. I’m always going to be learning the area that I’m presently working in.
My conception at the time, when I was in school was that I’m going to learn experimental solid-state physics, I’m going to become an expert, but then I’m going to use those specific sets of knowledge and turn the crank, in some sense. That’s not at all what happened. I learned that I would keep learning things all through my life and career. Even though I was kind of scrambling around in graduate school and being resourceful and talking people into doing things, it was really a team of one. When I got out into the wider world, I was never on a team of one. I was either being managed or managing groups, and I didn’t know how to do that. I learned how to do that post-graduate work.

Q: What resources did you find valuable as you began to work in a team environment?
I did have a couple of supervisors that led by example. It was pretty informal. I would say I had some good examples and some bad examples. I don’t think anybody ever said “I’m your mentor and you’re my protégé,” but they allowed me to watch because I had an interest in learning and they had an interest in developing it in me. Engaging with people that you admire, that’s probably the best way to learn that stuff.

Q: Did you ever ask the bosses if you could observe, or was it less clear than that?
It was more ambiguous than that. I would express an interest, or pose a problem. Maybe I would get some specific advice, or a couple of supervisors would tell stories about how they did things, or they would invite me to something. They’d say, “Why don’t you come to this meeting I’m running, and you can see what’s happening there.” There was nothing so explicit as “Teach me how to be a team leader.”
Q: How much satisfaction have you drawn from your career? What meaning and value have you derived from your work?
There have been a couple of peak experiences that made me feel like I was doing something that had broader meaning. At one point, I was working on a retinal project and we ended up restoring sight to a couple of individuals somewhat unexpectedly. It was just a moment really, but it had a lasting impact on me when I think about all of the other projects I’ve worked on, and how they had effects on people I don’t even know. That is definitely something I think about regularly and it makes me feel that my work has some larger connection to the world. It isn’t just an intellectual exercise I’m engaged in; I’m sometimes helping people. A lot of times I’m just earning money or solving some boring regulatory problem, but those peak moments remind me that a significant amount of what I’m doing is helping people in some way. I definitely value that.
Sometimes I’m working in a group of people who haven’t had that experience. Because I have had a few moments like that, I can say things or help people see the broader path to where we’re going. Sometimes I’ve been able to provide a perspective to others. On the negative side, I worked for years in laser dermatology, these aesthetic procedures, and I decided after some years that it was not really helping anybody, so I chose not to work on it anymore. Those earlier moments let me see that more clearly than if I had never had them.


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