“You just stay the course, and do what it is that you do, and grow while you’re doing it. Eventually it will either come full circle, or at least you’ll go to bed at night happy.” – Jon Bon Jovi
“Don’t get too comfortable with who you are at any given time – you may miss the opportunity to become who you want to be.” – Jon Bon Jovi
As a biologist, chemist, editor, journalist, blogger, entrepreneur, musician, traveller, father and founder of multiple startups, Dr. Nick Oswald has insights on just about everything and has a wonderful Scottish accent to boot! After graduating from an undergrad in chemistry, he went on to complete a PhD in molecular biology at University of Dundee, Scotland. He went on to work in biotech taking up research positions at Sophion and Ingenza. It was during this time that he founded Bitesize Bio, an online magazine and community for cell and molecular biologists with over 200,000 readers enjoying the articles and webinars produced by hundreds of writers. These writers are specialists in their area from around the world but each article, whether very technical or more soft skills-oriented, is friendly, understandable and draws you in with each word, just like the company’s founder! In the last year, Nick has co-founded another startup, Catalytic Content, a solution for biotech companies looking to create enjoyable content from mountains of information. I caught up with Nick on Skype to hear about the journey that brought him to where he is now and to hear what his plans are for the future. It’s my pleasure to welcome to our blog: Dr. Nick Oswald.
Me: So tell us, Nick, how did you land in science? Was it something you decided on very early on? Was there an event or person that drew you towards science?
Nick: Well actually it’s a funny story. I studied chemistry and afterwards I had no idea what I wanted to do. In fact I didn’t like chemistry much but I loved biology. I ended up applying for a PhD position way after the deadline as a last minute decision. I was accepted to a position but it was a terrible fit. I didn’t have much practical lab experience so I felt very lost and helpless. Luckily some other researchers offered their support and guidance so this, along with a lot of trial and error, got me through. Remembering how alone and confused I felt back then would later inspire me to found Bitesize Bio.
Me: I think a lot of PhD students would be able to relate to that situation. Before you decided to do a PhD in molecular and cell biology, were you playing with any other career paths?
Nick: Actually, don’t laugh, but I wanted to be a musician! I was in a band. We played gigs and everything! But in the end I decided to move into biology.
Me: Back in 2007, while working for the industrial biotech, Ingenza, you founded BitesizeBio.com at your kitchen table. Your hope was to create readable content to help scientists pool their learning and share their tricks. Now almost a decade later, the Bitesize Bio community has grown to over 200,000 monthly users. Tell us about how Bitesize Bio works. What makes it sustainable?
Nick: Well Bitesize is an online magazine where researchers, mainly PhD students, can find easy-to-understand articles written by experts in their fields. When I founded Bitesize, my main aim was to make sure every PhD student has access to the resources they need to understand the technique they’re trying to do and to really succeed in the lab so that’s what Bitesize is all about. It has really grown organically from a need. At the beginning, it was just me and I was writing one article a day. But when you only have one writer, it’s hard not to get stale and run out of things to talk about. Now, we have a lot of experienced writers but also people who are totally new to it and who need a way into the writing world so we offer anyone with some wisdom to share the chance to do so. Anyone can write for us but some writers that really shine, whose work doesn’t need a lot of editing and who really get what Bitesize is all about, will join a pool of writers who write more regularly for the site. We also have an amazing team of editors.
Me: Looking back, what decisions do you think you made along the way that you’d now attribute to why Bitesize Bio has become so successful? Why do readers stick around?
Nick: It’s information that will genuinely help them. If you compare that to a website that’s just stuffed with news or results from research, that’s useful but it doesn’t genuinely help people. It doesn’t move them. It doesn’t make friends with them. Bitesize does. We also have new content all the time, we post at least daily and always have so that makes a big difference because people know they can rely on you.
Me: Something Bitesize has done for a while now is to take the best articles and group them together to create handbooks. You’ve also been offering webinars. What’s next for the site? Would you like to create courses where people earn certificates, something like Coursera’s model?
Nick: Well, as you mentioned we have this fat layer of content, tons of individual chunks of information. Making an e-book is what we call second tier content where we basically repurpose this information. We add the original content and then some more content around it so it can be easily digested and is more of a complete piece. The downside of having so much content is that it can be difficult to find specific articles unless you can search for them so the books and so on take chunks of information out and make it more readily accessible and visible.
We want to enhance what members get so that they’re more drawn in. The more we can draw them in, having them on our mailing list and so on, the more we can show them stuff like this second tier content that can benefit them, instead of them always going out and finding it themselves or finding us in organic search and just looking at what’s on the homepage.
We’re not looking at what you get from research. The results and so on. We’re looking at the fundamentals. The tools. The techniques. The approaches that we use to create the research so any courses we’ll do will be technical workshops. We use our seminars to bring members up to the next tier.
The ultimate goal is to have Bitesize conference that’s just technical that maps to what Bitesize does. We’d get people in to talk about what they know, specific techniques or vocations to help those who come to the conference.
Me: Wow, that’s very exciting. So are you guys thinking of trying out other platforms like Coursera? [Coursera pays universities and institutions to give free lecture series and then offers a participants a Capstone project and certificate for a fee]
Nick: Oh well now! So one of the core reasons I did [Bitesize] was for the independence. I think we have enough power under us where we are already but you never know, things change all the time. At the moment I think we can run it ourselves. We probably have more access to our target audience than Coursera does as well so never say never but we’d like to keep it independent for now.
Me: Tell us about your newest project, Catalytic Content. How does it fit into Bitesize Bio?
Nick: I read this business book that said always use your bi-product and the bi-product of BitesizeBio is we have this amazing writing machine. Writers start off with us and some end up in a pool that we know we can trust to create good content and work with our editorial team so that engine is very valuable. One of the things that we do is outsource that machine to other companies. Catalytic Content is a very specific niche of that that involves working with a company that has pretty smart algorithms for pulling out literature slices, like a particular area or technique, and Catalytic Content turns those literature slices into streams of content for companies. For example, every month we could pull a list of people who have published and used a particular company’s product and then the writing team write up articles about selected manuscripts so basically Catalytic Content turns a literature steam into content for whatever a company would like to show on their website.
Me: You originally started off in biotech. Have you now left industry for good or would you like to go back? Do you feel that writing is just much more suited to you so goodbye CEO I’m not coming back!
Nicks: *laughs* Well, again never say never! There have been many times I’ve thought of going back. I have founded, in a sense, a bootstrap startup and has been going for 8 years or whatever it is now and you always have these good waves but then there are times that are tougher. That’s when I think it would be nice to be back in the lab and have that safety net! You feel like, “uhhh! I don’t know if I can do this anymore!”. It happens less now but it used to be every three months or so. Now I think I can, hopefully, keep doing it. I quite like the freedom so I don’t think I could go back. I like running things myself.
Me: It’s clear you’ve got the spirit of a teacher and that this drives a lot of your work. Would you consider going into teaching as a career? Perhaps at a university or even at middle or high school level to get people more excited about science?
Nick: Well I think one of the things that has come out of this for me is that I really like the independence, I really value it. I work hard in the directions I want to work in so I don’t think I’d like having to work within someone else’s structure. But one of the things that I’m actually actively working towards and am doing already to various extents is going to see university to give talks, workshops to help people. I would take that right down to helping kids who don’t know what they want to do next, not even just science. I feel like I’ve been walking through the jungle for the last 7-8 years and learning a lot about myself and the world, about how the world works and how to get things done. A lot of that is widely applicable to whatever you do in life. So to answer your question, I would do it but I wouldn’t do it within someone else’s structure. I would do it under my own agenda.
Me: That sounds very practical! I’m sure there are tons of PhD students and other researchers out there who feel a little confused or lost and would very much appreciate the help so there is certainly a need for this! It sounds like you keep very busy but how do you like to relax? Do you have any hobbies?
Nick: I like running, getting out and keeping healthy and all that. I still play in a band called One Wild Night, it’s a Bon Jovi tribute band. Between that and my kids that fills up about all the time I have!
Me: That’s understandable! Do you have a favourite spot where you like to write? Are you one of these people that can work from home or do you rent out an office space?
Nick: Well I think I’ve tried every way! It’s certainly something I’ve wrestled with but I think I’m finally worked out a system. It goes against the grain for me but I’ve actually been working from home on a schedule. I decide what my hours are, take time to go running and whatever else and commit to that. That seems to work. And I always work from the same space so when I go in, everyone in the family knows I’m working, including me! I try to keep that as strict as possible. Also I try to have an on and off switch. For a long time I had more of an analog switch than digital so I was kind of half working a lot of the time, checking emails on my phone or ducking in to write here and there. But now I’m more efficient having an on and off switch. It’s very important. The two ways I do this are a schedule and a dedicated space. That way you get a clear divide between the work time and the relaxation time and the proper benefits of both.
Me: That is always the challenge working from home! Because you’re always technically at work!
Nick: Yep, it’s a killer! No one likes that! Least of all wives!!
From the team here at Tempo, thank you for interviewing with us, Nick!