Meet the scientific-database developer
Robin Padilla earned his PhD in chemistry in 2010. He worked as a postdoc and scientific editor before assuming his current role as a product manager with Springer Nature. In this position, he applies his analytical skills to developing databases that help researchers to find the information they need faster.
What is your scientific background?
I am an organic chemist by training. After my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, I did a postdoc at the Catalysis Research Laboratory at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. I essentially worked as an industrial postdoc based at a university lab, which was part of a joint venture with BASF, a German chemical company. Technically, I was employed by BASF and worked on industry projects. It was my first exposure to the business side of science.
Industrial research is completely different from academic research. In academia, you ask whether your research is interesting, whether people have done it before and whether you can get funding to do it. In the corporate world, your research is based on questions about the market, what your competitors are doing and what will be the return on investment. It’s a completely different way of thinking about and approaching science.
What inspired your transition to a non-research career?
During my postdoc, the financial crisis finally hit the chemical industry. I was applying for jobs in the United States and Europe, and it was really difficult, because there were very few vacancies and many applicants chasing them. I started to think about whether I wanted to continue down the research path, or whether there were other things I could do with my background in science. Although I really enjoyed doing research, I was never so attached to it that I couldn’t imagine myself pursuing other careers — that was the starting point for me.
What is your role as a product manager?
After my postdoc, I worked as a scientific editor for the Thieme Chemistry division of the publishing company Georg Thieme, and eventually joined Springer Nature in 2015 as a product manager for Springer Materials, which is a materials-science database. Last year, I was promoted to director of product management for a new database platform called Springer Nature Experiments, which is focused on experimental methods and procedures in the life sciences.
As a product manager, you’re essentially a mini chief executive. You are a specialist on your product, and responsible for guiding its development. There are product managers in every industry. You should understand on a deep level who your users are, what their needs are and what challenges they have, so that you can develop solutions to address those problems.
I spend a lot of time talking to our users, who are researchers, trying to understand what challenges they have — especially with regard to finding information. I also work closely with the folks who develop the database, including coders and software developers. In addition, I work with user-experience designers — who streamline the database design and enhance useability — and data architects, who organize how data are stored, integrated and accessed. There’s a big commercial aspect of the role, given that it involves working with people in sales and marketing.
The thing I enjoy most about my job is the balance between the business side of things and the science. I work with sales and marketing on business development. On the scientific side, I get to understand the challenges researchers are facing and, by extension, the newest advances that are taking place.
Any advice for early-career researchers?
Keep your eyes and minds open to new things. There are a lot more opportunities outside of teaching and research. There’s a big demand for folks with scientific training who can think critically, analyse and interpret data and solve problems — those skills are really valuable and go way beyond being able to work in the lab.