Physics at Bruker BioSpin (feat. Antonios Papaioannou)
Alumni Aloud Episode 52
Antonios Papaioannou is an Application Scientist at Bruker BioSpin, a magnetic resonance and preclinical imaging instrumentation company. Bruker is based out of Millerica, MA, but Antonios works at the BioSpin office in Rheinstetten, Germany. He earned his PhD in Physics from the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Antonios tells us about searching and applying for jobs internationally, the importance of internships, and the similarities and differences between teaching and his current customer-facing responsibilities.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
CARLY BATIST, HOST: In this episode, I sit down Dr. Antonios Papaioannou. Antonios earned his PhD from the Physics program at the Graduate Center. When we spoke, he was an Application Scientist at Bruker BioSpin in Germany. In this episode, Antonios tells us about searching and applying for jobs internationally, the importance of internships, and the similarities and differences between teaching and his current customer-facing responsibilities.
Let’s just start with you introducing yourself, what your current position is, and what that entails?
ANTONIOS PAPAIOANNOU, GUEST: Alright. My name is Antonios Papaioannou, I’m originally Greek. I’m a physicist by training. I had my undergraduate studies in Greece in physics and I started in the Physics program at the GC in 2011 doing what is I guess widely known as magnetic resonance imaging which is the MRI. But the basic principle we call magnetic resonance. And I finished at the Graduate Center in 2016. Took a postdoc position at NYU for two years or three years roughly. And ended up at Bruker Biospin, which is a company that makes magnetic resonance hardware, which is the entire apparatus: magnets, amplifiers, the entire thing you need so that you can perform magnetic resonance experiments. And it’s called Bruker Biospin and my position is Application Scientist. Which is…which is a little bit of everything as job duties.
BATIST: What are some of those?
PAPAIOANNOU: It varies by specific week in, week out. But in general, I could specify it as customer support in terms of novel method development or trouble-shooting. You get a phone call from Europe, or in the evening time you get it from the US because it’s the morning.
BATIST: *laughs* Yeah.
PAPAIOANNOU: Saying, “Oh I cannot run this experiment, I cannot run that experiment and can you help me?” So basically sometimes it’s that kind of trouble-shooting, customer support I said, method development and then it goes into trainings for existing customers or customers want to buy a Bruker product, they come into our trainings or organize demo’s for them. For example, they want to buy the entire magnetic resonance set-up, which is not cheap. We’re talking about, probably a million, two million dollars or Euro’s.
PAPAIOANNOU: So customers, they basically come in before they get their grants. And they have a specific set of experiments they want to run. So we invite them on-site here in Germany and we run everything for them over the course of three, four days let’s say. Even shorter sometimes. And then we have in terms of marketing, we have specific conferences we go to in our group. And, I failed to mention, my position is Application Scientist in the Micro-Imaging and Diffusion Group within Bruker BioSpin. So that puts us into the category of imaging as well as some more exotic physics experiments-porous media, petroleum industry or maybe granular materials and things like that. Like sand, earth sciences for example, use those types of things.
PAPAIOANNOU: So, conferences for those types of, I guess, science disciplines.
BATIST: So who, who is the client? Is it research labs, universities, hospitals?
PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah so it depends group by group. But I would say we have probably 70% universities worldwide and maybe 30% companies, pharmaceutical companies that do those kinds of experiments. And essentially this is the group that we’re trying to…keep happy, just to put it this way. *laughs*
BATIST: Yes…so do you work just with people who are doing like research on the MRI’s, not necessarily in hospitals running MRI scans?
PAPAIOANNOU: So, there’s Bruker Biospin in the, I guess I should say, magnetic resonance imaging for small animals and Bruker essentially develops the whole system to scan and image small animals. And for hospitals, for human MRI’s, Bruker does not offer systems for that market. So essentially for that market, you’re looking at GE–General Electric–and Siemens.
PAPAIOANNOU: So we are in the, we’re towards the small animal imaging part.
BATIST: Oh, ok.
PAPAIOANNOU: So essentially you have for example, the university hospitals like NYU medical centers, I was at. They have for human MRI’s, Siemens or Phillips or GE and they also have Bruker products for animal imaging.
BATIST: Ok gotcha. And you, so you’re originally…you came to the GC as an international student and returned back to Europe. How was the international job market in relation to like what you found the job market to be like in the US?
PAPAIOANNOU: So the entire or I guess I should say the last year for, during my postdoc, I was looking for jobs basically. So honestly in the US there’s a lot more jobs with respect to the NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance and the MRI side. But in Europe…and in general there’s more jobs in the US because people are switching jobs more easily. I guess it’s maybe the culture is different with respect to Europe. When you’re looking at Europe, there is specific countries that they have a big market. For example, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and then from there, or at least I was, looking essentially at where I would want to live and start my job there. But with respect to the two countries [areas], US has more options, especially West Coast. And some East Coast. East Coast is a little bit more I should say hands-on jobs in terms of hardware. Whereas the West Coast is a bit more software engineering and things like that. So that’s, I guess, that’s my take.
BATIST: Are these just positions in industry? Or were you also looking at academic positions?
PAPAIOANNOU: I wouldn’t say I struggled a lot with this question. Yeah, many of my friends they had this. So essentially, during my PhD, I think it was year two or year three, I took an internship in Boston in Massachusetts at an oil industry. It’s called [unclear], it’s an oil field company. Because this was essentially a research job in a company.
PAPAIOANNOU: So in my mind, it combined industry and also the research part. So from year three I would say, I knew I would want to end up in industry. So basically the reason I took a postdoc position was just to make sure I liked industry more rather than following an academic career. So basically there was this opportunity with a collaborator of us to move from CUNY to NYU. And it wasn’t that much of a risky move because it was the same city, I didn’t have to move. I liked the subject and the research that they were doing. So I took that and I learned a lot, honestly. That group was great in terms of MRI and in terms of, a little bit more theory of magnetic resonance. But at the end of the day I knew that I wanted to lean towards a path to industry.
BATIST: And how did you find that internship when you were still at the GC? Is that just something you came across?
PAPAIOANNOU: So, connections. Everything’s connections. As a second year and I should add, international student, in New York, you don’t have many connections, right. So my advisor had many connections in that field, and I think he served as a consultant for that company if I’m not mistaken. So he knew some people from there so he set me up with an interview, basically, because that’s as far as connections can get you I think. I got an interview and I spent 3-4 months in Boston there.
BATIST: So your advisor was supportive of non-academic tracks?
PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah I mean so he, although he’s in academia now, he passed by the industry as well. So he worked for Northrop Grumma for a few years, developing radar, so he knew both. So his, I guess, his advice was-you can try everything and then decide what you want to do essentially.
BATIST: What was it like to move to a different country? Because you had obviously been in the US now for like eight years or so after the postdoc. How did you find adjusting?
PAPAIOANNOU: It was a conscious decision and we moved as a family. So we are my, my wife, and two children now but my daughter back then in September, she was almost two. So it was a lot more complicated than moving by myself.
PAPAIOANNOU: But, in terms of this type of move because it’s not within the US or within Europe. You’re moving from one region to the other, now it’s different continents. There were a little bit more logistics that I needed to take care of. For example, you know it was in the middle of the summer. And now the question is, “Can you find an apartment?” Find an apartment then send all your stuff around but at the end of the day, it wasn’t too bad I should say. It went pretty smoothly. And also the adjustment starting at Bruker in September, it was actually really good because the group I’m working with there are all really nice and very supportive. They don’t have that many international newcomers as the US companies. So that I found a little bit disappointing. In terms of the HR now I’m talking about. Because I feel like the US they get so many people from different countries that they have standard protocols of how to handle this stuff. But within the group, they helped a lot in terms of adjusting. Paperwork and things like that. Because I should mention, I don’t speak German!
BATIST: Is English the language of the company then?
PAPAIOANNOU: Yes, yes, yes. It’s an international company. It was founded in Germany, I can’t remember which year. But they also have offices, well Germany here we have the headquarters for MRI and NMR and some other departments. But in Boston we also have the US headquarters as well. And we also have Australia, all over Europe, and Asia. Pretty international.
BATIST: Yeah. What are the backgrounds of the people you work with? Does everyone have PhD’s?
PAPAIOANNOU: Most of them, they have PhD’s from different backgrounds though. We have physics, then we have pure physics in terms of theory and then we have experimental physics. Then we have mathematicians and they’re developing algorithms and things like that. Software engineers from computer science majors and PhD’s from computer science. Electrical engineering because it’s not only the fundamentals for the methods here you’re going to develop. But within Bruker we’re also developing amplifiers and things like that. So you have to go to the lab and solder things and see if that works, if you connect that cable there. So it’s more complicated than I know. So electrical engineering is a big part.
BATIST: So very inter-disciplinary kind of team it sounds like.
PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah, yes, yes exactly.
BATIST: What did the job application process itself look like in terms of…did you send a resume, what was the interviewing? That kind of thing.
PAPAIOANNOU: So it was stressful procedure I should say. Because you know, you’re trying to move from a postdoc position to somewhere. So essentially you have a, you can move to start applying for academic positions or you can go to industry. So essentially, I was sending resumes and trying to find connections from wherever I could. So basically the position here opened up and I knew someone from NYU who has Bruker products. They knew someone within Bruker. So that’s how the whole interview process started.
BATIST: Gotcha. Was it kind of standard interview protocol? Like how many people did you interview with?
PAPAIOANNOU: So I would say, because by then, by the time I interviewed at Bruker I had some interviews already. So I would say the interview at Bruker was a little bit more relaxed than the other companies. The first interview I had was with the entire group I’m working with now. So that is five people. Plus the manager for the entire group of applications, so that’s six. And that included HR so that’s seven people. And the first interview was an hour and a half. So that was the first round and then a month later I got an invite to come visit here and talk to the group and give a presentation. So that was an hour and a half first interview and then second round was an on-site visit for one day. Yeah.
BATIST: Gotcha. And then you received an offer after that?
PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah, yeah. It took, it took awhile after that actually. I think it was a month or two months maybe to receive the offer and I think that was maybe February of 2019. The good thing is that they were pretty relaxed in terms of the starting date. So it was actually good because I had to coordinate moving. Moving out of the US, moving out of New York, getting all our stuff here. I wanted to take a little bit of a break so I went back to Greece. I enjoyed the sun so…
BATIST: Yeah there’s not so much of that in Germany!
PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah, now it’s not so bad actually. But I should say October through March, it’s bad.
BATIST: What kinds of skills did you gain or fine-tune during the PhD that you’re still using in this position? What helped make you successful in this field?
PAPAIOANNOU: Problem-solving. It’s a really general thing but I think it’s the number one thing that, that you gain. That’s what you’re trained to do during your PhD. Because most of the time, things don’t work for the PhD and it’s the same in industry. Because you know, you get a customer and then they say, “This doesn’t work, what can I do?” And of course some of the guys I work with, they have twenty years experience so they’ve seen a lot. But mainly just got to try a few things and that guides you to the next step and the next step. And then that’s one thing that is really important. And the other thing is formal training in terms of knowledge about what you’re dealing with. Which, that you cannot get just by reading a lot and solving exercises and reading papers and things like that.
BATIST: Your team doesn’t do any like primary research itself? Or are you doing that still?
PAPAIOANNOU: Maybe, I should say, 5-10% of the time, of the everyday. Or maybe I shouldn’t say everyday but maybe within 6 months we might do something. But most of the research and the papers, they come from external collaborators. Which is also great because you get to talk to people, or at least, I get to talk to people that I was talking with at conferences as a PhD and postdoc. And now you can still do research with them. But it’s not…as Bruker employees we’re not putting 100% of our time there. It’s just, we’re acting as support for doing this research or this study or this project with that team at that university or research center.
BATIST: Gotcha. And it sounds like now you have pretty extensive customer service tasks. How was that kind of shift to working in such a customer-facing [role]?
PAPAIOANNOU: Ah, ok I see. So I don’t know if this is general, but during my PhD years I had the team I was working with. They were all really nice, you know postdocs and things like that. So we had to, I mean we didn’t have to face customers but we had to fix everything ourselves. Our advisor was kind of involved but we could get the initiative to fix things ourselves and lead our projects. And very collaborative environment I should say. I had very big support for my dissertation project for the group. But in terms of facing customers now, it adds a layer now of…you have to be precise and you cannot assume or try things that maybe they’re not going to work. Let’s put it this way…
PAPAIOANNOU: So this, this layer is kind of new. New to me. But I think so far I’ve done a good job in terms of customer support and things like that, trainings. I mean trainings, they’re not as hard because as an expert offering a training to someone is a little bit easier than trouble-shooting. And I guess the most difficult part that I find in my job now is doing trouble-shooting on site. So you visit a customer and something doesn’t work so there, you really have to be creative and know what you’re doing.
BATIST: Right. Do you see kind of, with the trainings and demo’s and stuff, parallels like to the teaching that you did during the PhD?
PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah, yeah for sure. It’s essentially the same thing because the trainings, it’s essentially a workshop. And I guess in the first workshop that we organized as a group at the GC was during the qualifiers. Physics qualifying exam, I don’t know how it is now but back then it was after finishing your first year during the summer. So we organized several, I don’t know let’s call it, educational sessions and I presented some of them. So it’s essentially the same thing. In terms of the demo’s, it brings a layer of difficulty because you have to know what you are doing but things can never nevertheless go wrong. Because you are sitting on an instrument and sometimes it just doesn’t work and you have to figure out why. Whereas in some training session, you’re just going through slides or writing on the board.
BATIST: What would you recommend to other or current science PhD’s at the GC who want to get into this field or industry more generally?
PAPAIOANNOU: I guess number one tip would be to try things out, as my advisor told me. So if you want to try things out, you gotta undertake internships during the PhD. And I think it’s really easy in the US. Or at least there are many positions in the US for industry internships. So that’s one thing. And there, I did it once but if I would go back, I would do it multiple times honestly. Then you have your, you’ve gotta face your advisor. Because he wants you in the lab and he wants you to do work. But I think finding a balance between doing work during the nine months and then maybe taking three months off.
And then even better if the internship is close to your research project or dissertation, that’s even better. And mine was kind of close-ish, maybe. I mean the project I did there, it’s in my dissertation thesis but I wouldn’t say it’s directly connected to what I did. So this is number one. And then second, that’s for the industry part. Then for the…in terms of academia, I would say doing a postdoc is very essential. And if people are looking for postdocs, they should find people that they know they are good. Good in terms of communication, I mean, and also in terms of research. And it’s what they want to do.
BATIST: Yeah. I think you’ve given a ton of great advice! Is there anything else you want to say or that current students should know or anything else about your career path before we wrap up?
PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah, maybe one piece of advice for the international students, they should have in mind all this. Or they should have in mind their career path but they also need to be coordinate their immigration status with international students. Because this, for international students in the US this adds an extra layer of difficulty during interviews and during internships. So they have to keep that in mind. And I would recommend to talk to someone that went through this process as international students that are working in industry now or they have professorships somewhere. But anyway, they went through this process so they have, I’m sure they will have good advice. And many, many stories.
BATIST, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Antonios for coming on the show to share his experiences as a Magnetic Resonance Application Scientist. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every 2 weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
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