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From academia to industry to NGO with Michal Halpert

After making several transitions between diverse job types, Michal is now the Academic Engagement Manger at the Good Food Institute Israel. She shares her professional journey with us and provides advice about adjusting to new work places as well as shaping your career path.


What do you do in your current position?

“I am responsible for the academic engagement within GFI. The main goal is to advance the science in the field of alternative proteins. We try to spot science that can advance the field and get more researchers involved. The work is very diverse: I work with students, organize events, seminars, courses; I talk with institutes and researchers and work closely with corporate engagement. In the end, GFI wants to be positioned in areas where it can help make advancements: by providing scientific knowledge for example, running grants or matching scientists to entrepreneurs.”


What is your background and how did you decide to apply for this position?

“My first and second degrees are in biochemistry and food engineering. I did my PhD at the Technion and continued to a postdoc in Rehovot. After this, I worked as a lab manager for a short while before deciding to explore the industry. I started as a project manager at Valin Technologies, which is focused on research and development of innovative biological therapeutics. I was managing a project that had recently ended in academia and worked on developing the production process according to the industry needs with a focus on scale-up and regulation. I enjoyed zooming out from the specific science in the lab to the whole process, and to see everything from start to end including the connections between departments and the difference between academia and industry.“


“However, I didn’t agree with the concept of the product, so I started looking in other directions and explored where my knowledge could be useful and landed in the food tech industry. It opened my eyes to the world of alternative proteins. I was a vegetarian at that point mainly because of welfare issues, and it struck me that I wasn’t aware of all the different challenges that animal agriculture is creating. While learning more about the alternative protein space, I got acquainted with the work of GFI and thought: this is an organization I want to work in. I can really relate to the ‘why’. In one of their events, I saw they had an open position in academic engagement. It is really different from what I did before, but I’m very happy with this decision.”


How did you deal with the transition from academia to industry?

“The work and focus is really different: you are not just trying to do science, but providing a product. This means you try to produce something in the best way with the lowest costs. You study and explore the things you need, and it is very important to stay focused on your goal. It is more deadline-oriented and structured. The work is more diverse and you are not working alone, there are other departments that are waiting for your results and conclusions in order to continue with the development. In academia, your output doesn’t influence someone else’s results that much. For me it was eye opening and very interesting but it took me some time to get used to it.”


“For a first job, I feel it is important to be in a place that can provide you guidance on what to focus on. You have a gap to fill, and the company should have the knowledge to do this. Some startups for example, especially the early stage ones, are only recently out of academia and don’t have the knowledge of an industry yet. Starting in a bigger company helped me see how the industry is working.”


What is it like to work in an NGO?

“It’s really different like every transition that I made: the shift from academia to industry, the shift to a startup and now to an NGO; every time I had to make some kind of adjustment. Shifting from working in the lab and designing experiments to working from home in the middle of covid was really different and hard. The skills that I need in this position are very different. I work with people now, and not with microorganisms. I meet one on one with researchers and explain why our work is important and how they can contribute. I had to learn how to tell a story, how to engage people and how to write emails that will not be deleted, and I am still learning. In addition, I am working with all kinds of people that I never worked with before, such as deans. The organization is really supportive in this learning process, they were patient and gave me the time I needed.”


What advice can you give students that are interested in a career path like yours?

“I’m not sure you need all the steps on the way that I did. Every experience will contribute of course, but you don’t really know in advance how a particular experience will help you. I don’t think you should plan very far ahead; when I started thinking of industry for example, I couldn’t predict a position in GFI. Go after what interests you now and start getting expertise. This is no problem for anyone that finishes a masters and especially a PhD; you know how to learn and can gain any skill. Don’t think too much or create barriers in your mind.”


“Understanding of the industry is more important than specific bench work. Once you finish a PhD, I believe it’s easiest to enter the industry through a scientist position. This first step is really important, not to do the bench work, but to understand how the industry works. You need to choose the right company that provides you with skills and options to move forward in the industry.”


Do you have any unconventional tips?

“One of the questions I was asked in one of my interviews is: what are the things that will make you decide NOT to work somewhere? Before you start looking at all the positions out there, decide for yourself: what am I looking for? What is the next step I want to do? What are the specific parameters that are important to me? It could be salary, guidance, a specific job title, location, anything. Also know what are the things that are not good for you. I for example don’t like it when someone monitors my work from up close, I need to have the freedom to do the work. You have to realize that you are in a position of choosing, and you don’t have to take anything you find. It takes time and that is okay; I don’t know anyone that finished a masters or PhD and didn’t find a place to work in. You will get there!”


“Another advice: if you want to make the switch to industry, the most important step is to take the first step. You don’t know how the industry works and what your options are. You will not know this by looking from the outside, you need to enter the industry. Your first job may not be your dream job, but it will provide you the expertise and skills to grow and better define for yourself what you want.”

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