“I think I have the only job that exists like this in the world.”
Anja Scholze has every reason to believe those words are true. As the Experience Developer and Program Manager for Biotech & Health at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, she designs exhibits focused on cutting edge biotechnologies that are the first of their kind in the museum world.
Scholze received her PhD in Developmental Biology at Stanford in 2014 where she studied glial cell development. Shortly before finishing her degree, the Tech Museum hired her to help develop a new exhibit on synthetic biology, bioengineering, and DIY bio. Scholze and colleagues came up with the BioDesign Studio exhibit, now two years old and still on display at the Tech. The exhibit engages visitors with the entire process of biological design, from building gene circuits to working hands on with colorful bacteria on plates and quantifying the results.
“We were charged with envisioning and implementing experiences at the museum that were at the intersection of traditional and hands on…The exhibit is less about delivering content and more about empowering experiences.”
Scholze’s volunteer activities at the Tech Museum during her PhD led her to her current position. Prior to graduating, she thought about leaving academia or teaching at a small university. Unsure of her next move, she had planned to take a year off and travel, until she was offered her current position.
“I had been volunteering at The Tech for only a few months when the person running Stanford’s Outreach said they were looking for someone to help develop this exhibit. I ended up meeting with a person from the museum’s exhibit development team at 10 am the morning after my thesis defense. I had an interview, which wasn’t very formal, as it was for a position that wasn’t very standard. After that things moved quickly and I started part time at the museum over the summer while finishing up my dissertation and then switched to full time after I graduated.
Because I explored things that sounded interesting to me during my PhD, I was already in contact with the people [in that area] when this position came up. It’s about networking and putting yourself in the right place at the right time.”
Scholze began by putting her molecular biology skills to work preparing the museum for the technical iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) competition. However, Scholze quickly learned other skills on the job, such as user experience and exhibit design. As the museum grappled with how to best communicate information about bioengineering and DIY bio, Scholze found herself taking on a more conceptual design role and spearheaded creating the novel Biotinkering Lab area.
“My first role was as a Biotech Experience Designer. [The BioDesign Exhibition was], as a whole, no more than general concept when I started. They needed someone with content knowledge and who could work with living things and do molecular biology.
It is easy to say we want a hands-on DIYbio museum exhibit. But what does that mean, how do you keep it alive, how do you sustain it? The museum was freaked out by this concept. My role transitioned to take on the challenge of this crazy biotinkering lab space. They needed someone to figure out what is possible, what works, what doesn’t.
It can be hard to convince a museum that coming from a technical background you can contribute meaningfully to user experience and design work. I learned on the job about design and working at a museum.”
Though her job is quite different from her PhD benchwork, Scholze emphasizes that broad skills gained during her PhD prepared her well for her current role. Direct skills include problem-solving, systems thinking, and experimental design. She also uses “softer skills” such as perseverance and stubbornness.
“[What’s most important are the] problem-solving skills, to be given a nebulous unknown thing and be able to figure out on your own the first steps toward a solution. During graduate school, this is often underrated as a skill because everyone is doing it, but people who are even halfway through a PhD are so much better at it than most. It’s the ability to look at complex systems as a whole and figure out what strings you can pull or walls you can knock down to simplify things. Or understanding how you can manipulate a system to fit a specific need without breaking it. You do that designing experiments, figuring out which things are more stable and which are less, and holding all of that in your mind.
Implementing and operationalizing dynamic biotech experiences in a museum setting is now my system instead of a technical biological system, but I use many of the same skills in figuring out how to make things work. It makes me uniquely qualified for this job.
It was tough leaving academia and not having a research sphere surrounding me at all times. On the other hand, I work with people from many more different backgrounds and perspectives now.”
Scholze’s days are never the same. Her work varies with the exhibit development cycle, which takes about a year.
“I do a lot of initial brainstorming and exploring; What’s going on in the world of biodesign? DIYbio? Academia? Then its resource acquisition, content research, and tool research. Eventually, I transition to spending more time in the lab, doing early-stage usability testing of possible systems. We then focus on user-centered prototyping; taking ideas to visitors on the floor. What’s supportable, what’s realistic, what won’t be destroyed by children? At this point, I think a lot about the visitor experience and create extensive documentation for procedures and facilitation. After that, it’s implementation, which involves working with design and engineering and fabrication teams, and finally daily running of the activity. Plus normal administrative stuff.”
Scholze loves the excitement, challenge, and gratification of working at a museum. With her degree, perspective, and unique position, she is forging the way for future exhibit developers and designers.
“I still use my advanced degree, it’s just not for advancing scientific knowledge. Museums are good at seeing what’s going to be relevant next; inspiring people and bringing them something that isn’t known.
That’s what’s kept me at this job. I hope that in the future there will be more positions like this!”
Julia Borden is a first-year graduate student in the Molecular & Cellular Biology PhD program.