Dan Beacham, PhD, 2001Dan Beacham Ph.D. works as a Senior Scientist in the Cellular Systems Division of Life Technologies, a company that encompasses Invitrogen and employs over 10,000 people. Beacham works at the Eugene, Oregon, campus, which once was a small company of about 300 employees called Molecular Probes, well known for developing dyes that have revolutionized biological inquiry.
“We don’t just make chemical dyes here,” explains Beacham. “We also are the source for all the cells, the gene sequencing and manipulation reagents, the gene delivery technologies, and all the screening tools used to rapidly interrogate multiple drug targets.” Their specialty, he says, is to take a technique that’s difficult and to make it accessible to everyone, so that scientists can train anyone to do research previously only done by a handful of labs. “Instead of mixing reagents and transforming E. coli,” Beacham wants scientists to “spend your time doing science experiments.” He describes his clients as “drug discovery gurus looking for ways to combat illness…to better the human condition. Being involved in that is tremendously exciting.”
Working at Life Technologies—and at most biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies, for that matter—puts researchers into the realm of applied science rather than the basic science research done at academic institutions. While visiting Molecular Probes to give a talk in 2006, Beacham realized that the applied nature of the setting was very attractive to him. “It took me about maybe half an hour to realize the possibilities here in terms of the freedom to operate, to take my training and put it to use in a context that might contribute more to human health and drug discovery than anything I’d ever done.” Shortly after that visit, he left the University of Washington to work at Molecular Probes. “I feel closer to the leading edge of science here than I ever was in academics.”
Beacham stresses the importance of forming personal relationships in science. It was in fact an invitation from an NGP classmate that first brought Beacham to Molecular Probes. And while earning his undergraduate chemistry degree at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, Beacham spent several summers in a lab internship program at the University of North Carolina where he formed relationships that “serendipitously” led him to a technician job and then the Neuroscience Graduate Program at OHSU.
Beacham describes the NGP as a great fit for him. As a technician, he’d “already proven myself to those I’d be working with on my home turf,” he says, and didn’t apply anywhere else. “It was easy to find a good fit there, because it was so broad and flexible that you could make your own pathway. And as far as training, you could do whole-animal physiology or you could look very, very closely at the molecular events that underlie consciousness. For me, I thought pain was good system to do that in.” Beacham earned his Ph.D. in the lab of Ed McCleskey studying the ion channel physiology of nociception. After leaving OHSU in 2000, Beacham worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow for Martin Koltzenburg at the University College, London—again examining pain, but this time at the systems level. He followed this with a four-year postdoc with Bill Catterall at the University of Washington, investigating the molecular structure and function of ion channels.
Though he certainly values his post-graduate training, Beacham feels he got a fundamental, holistic neuroscience education in the NGP, “from the nitty-gritty biochemistry on up.” The P.I.-to-student ratio also stuck with him as one of the program’s great strengths, as well as the opportunities to interact with faculty members at informal gatherings like Friday Happy Hour. The Vollum seminar series gave us access to “top-flight researchers” from outside institutions, he recalls, as did the Student Research Forum and our “outstanding” retreats. “The student culture at OHSU in general was very strong—it was my kind of strong,” he says. “At bigger universities, they might have large societies that we didn’t have, but we had a chance for bonds and kinship that I couldn’t have found elsewhere.”
As for Portland, Beacham describes it as “far and away the best place I’ve ever lived,” on a list that includes Seattle, London, and Anchorage. Although Portland is often compared to Seattle, Beacham found there was “actually a world of difference,” especially when it comes to the cost of living. “I was able to buy a house and live comfortably,” on a student stipend. Beacham says Portland’s “proximity to the mountains, the ocean, and the desert, all within ninety minutes, and the city’s strong youth culture, plenty of music, coffee shops, an edgy hip scene,” all contributed to its standing on his list.