Worry less about standardized exam scores and more about mastering academically and ethically valuable principles.
Dr. Tammy Movsas was born and raised in Queens, New York and describes her childhood as being filled with curiosity and science experiments. For example, during middle school, she built a a maze for blind-cave fish to demonstrate how blind fish utilize their built-in sonar system to navigate their way through the water. That said, she acknowledges that her career as a scientist really began to flourish during her high school years. After her junior year of high school, she worked in a cancer biology laboratory at Michigan State University in E. Lansing, MI as part of a science research program for high school students (sponsored by the National Science Foundation). Little did she know back then, several decades later, she would return to Michigan to raise her own family, and start her own research institute.
During that high school summer that she spent working in a biochemistry lab, she learned how to truly formulate a scientific hypothesis and how to set up a rigorous research project to try and answer a question. The outcome of her summer science project provided new insights into the transformed cell cycle and she was later named Westinghouse Science Fair winner for that work. Before she knew it, she began to receive dozens of letters of commendation to recognize her scientific accomplishment from congressman, senators, mayors, Nobel Prize Winners and even from President Ronald Reagan himself.
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in 1982, she attended Harvard University where she majored in in biochemistry and molecular biology. After graduating from college in 1986, she attended Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and received her MD degree in 1990. During medical school, she became fascinated in one of the smallest but most complex organs of the body, the eye. So, after medical school, she trained in ophthalmology at Washington Hospital Center in D.C. Because she wanted to explore further the connections between the eye and the brain, she did a fellowship in neuro-ophthalmology at University of Pennsylvania as well as a fellowship pediatric ophthalmology at St Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia. After that, she practiced clinical ophthalmology for many years taking care of patients, both children and adults, with complex eye and brain disorders
For many doctors, this would have been enough. After all, Dr. Tammy Movsas was utilizing her passion for science by taking care of patients with serious eye disorders. But, she knew that she had a higher calling; so many blinding eye diseases were still not solved. For example, many premature babies develop a serious eye illness that damages their retina called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). There is no treatment to prevent ROP from occurring. For this reason, she decided to go back to the drawing board and view things from a completely different perspective.
So, she decided to go back to graduate school to study epidemiology. Epidemiologists are like medical detectives; they search for patterns across populations to find clues that may help unravel the causes behind diseases. In 2010, she graduated from University of Michigan with a Masters of Public Health in Epidemiology as well as with board-certification in Preventive Medicine and then, in 2012, she completed a fellowship in perinatal epidemiology at Michigan State University. Finally, she had all the skills she needed to attack the problems she wanted to solve.
By integrating knowledge and skills from all her many different backgrounds, all the pieces began to come together and Dr. Movsas developed new insights into possible treatments for a variety of eye disorders. In 2012, she founded Zietchick Research Institute (ZRI) to explore her ideas further. Within a few years, ZRI was an active drug discovery research institute working on developing new treatments for retinal diseases. Zietchick Research Institute has received multiple grants from the National Institute of Health and the State of Michigan to help support the complex and intensive being done there.
Where did the idea for Zietchick Research Institute come from?
The novel concept that hormones influence eye diseases was inspired by my unique, multidisciplinary background in ophthalmology, perinatal epidemiology and preventive medicine. I launched Zietchick Research Institute (ZRI) to develop hormonal-based therapeutics for ophthalmic disorders. I named my company “Zietchick” to honor my family (maiden) name. It is a very appropriate name since “Zietchick” means “little rabbit” in Russian and like the “Energizer Bunny”, Zietchick Research Institute is full of palpable, non-stop energy with a mission to create new treatments for a number of blinding eye disorders such as retinopathy of prematurity and diabetic retinopathy.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
There is no typical day at Zietchick Research Institute. Every day is a roller coaster with plenty of ups and downs. My days are filled with designing experiments, examining data, meeting with lab team members, reading the medical literature, attending conferences, creating hypotheses and most important, researching for new solutions for unsolved problems. I make each day productive by starting early in the morning (5 AM) so that I can plan out the day and take care of issues, even before most people have awoken from their slumber.
How do you bring ideas to life?
In order to bring ideas to life, I first read as much of the scientific literature on the relevant topic as possible. I often pull literally dozens and dozens of papers on a particular topic. While most people focus on the abstracts of an article (to find out the main message), I find the most fascinating part of the article is the discussion itself. In the discussion, authors often share their underlying thought process and this can be extremely helpful in terms of generating new ideas. Then after I have learned as much as humanly possible on a topic, I then try to “sleep on it” to let the ideas simmer in my brain. The most important thing to me is to not base my ideas on prior assumptions or the way that things have been done in the past. Rather, I allow all the different ideas and hypotheses to simmer and float around in my brain and then I start writing down my own thoughts regarding next steps and hypotheses.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m very excited by the explosion of information now available on the internet. This by far is one of the most powerful mechanisms by which we can move the scientific field forward. With articles being online these days, access to the scientific literature is as simple as doing a literature search and clicking on the article. This saves a great deal of time, compared to when I was in college and had to go to the library and physically photocopy every single article. Furthermore, more and more of the published medical literature is available by open access, meaning that the manuscripts are available to anyone who wants to read the work, not just those affiliated with universities or those who can afford to pay large fees to download articles.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Probably my most important habit that makes me most productive, is my persistence. I simply will not give up. I feel that while certain hypotheses or ideas will certainly evolve over time, one should not simply “give up” on a hypothesis or strategy simply because one data point does not fit in. Rather, one has to start questioning more deeply why that data point does not fit in. This will sometimes lead to a better understanding of the data, or an insight that will allow for some modification of the hypotheses in this regard.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my much younger self to worry less about standardized exam scores and more about mastering academically and ethically valuable principles. We have become a nation whose achievements are too often judged by the results of multiple choice tests. As a youngster, I, like most of my peers, worried extensively about my exam scores. But I have learned that standardized exam scores are not good indicators for how prepared one is to face the challenges of the work world or of one’s personal and family responsibilities.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I constantly question scientific assumptions and always look for new and improved ways to understand things. I think the biggest mistake that a scientist or researcher can make is to accept prior assumptions without really questioning them. Prior assumptions can often block our ability to see a completely novel way to approach things and find new cures.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I jump out of bed every morning with great excitement to get started on the day! From dawn to dusk, I focus all my energy on what can be accomplished that day and I try to remain optimistic, even when things take negative turns. I believe that entrepreneurs need to have the ability to take a positive outlook and belief in what can be achieved, instead on what cannot.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Over the last several of years, I have spent a great deal of time and resources fine-tuning my writing and communication skills. This has been an important strategy in growing my company because (a) excellent writing skills are needed to write grant proposals, scientific manuscripts as well as internal research protocols and reports and (b) excellent communication skills are needed for successful maintenance of both internal and external professional relationships. With use of my writing and communication skills, I have been able to submit compelling Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant proposals to the National Institute of Health which describe the highly innovative work we are performing and I have been successful in obtaining funding through this mechanism. The great advantage of this type of funding is that it is non-dilutive and thus, does not require any equity of the company to be relinquished. I plan to to further grow my company by applying for more and larger NIH SBIR grants.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Winning funding from the NIH is a very competitive process. Only less than 15% of NIH grant proposals are funded. As to be expected, not all of my company’s NIH grant proposals are awarded funds. When one of my grant applications is rejected, I pay close attention to all of the reviewer comments and then carefully rewrite the application to address reviewer concerns. Before re-submitting, I ask friends and colleagues to read over my application and make suggestions. Several times, grant proposals that had previously been rejected end up getting funded!
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
As we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words. It would be wonderful if there was a business that specialized in providing science-trained artists to draw scientific thoughts. I often have hypotheses and other thoughts in my head that would best be expressed visually but I am far from artistic. In fact, I have hired private artists from time to time to transform some of my thoughts into cartoon-like diagrams to explain my hypotheses and I have used these drawings on grant proposals. I think that many researchers would benefit from a professional service that could provide talented, science illustrators.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I have recently spent approximately $100 to create a Shutterfly family album photobook. I downloaded a year’s worth of pictures of family and friends onto my computer and uploaded it onto the Shutterfly site. I then arranged the pictures so that they tell the story of my family’s life. Shutterfly then transformed the arrangement into a large, beautiful photo album and shipped it to me.. I get such pleasure in looking through the album and sharing it with others that I consider the $100 investment money well-spent.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Since I have been a little kid, I have always been “directionally challenged”. Sometimes, I even get lost going around the corner! GPS software has revolutionized my life. Apps such as “Waze” provides real-time traffic and road info, maximizing the efficiency of my commute. Driving to meetings and conferences is now a breeze. No longer do I need to stop to ask directions and I can accurately predict when I will arrive at my destination.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
My career path has had many exciting twists and turns and timing of events (such as pregnancies during medical internships and ophthalmology residency) has been and continues to be a key part of my journey as a mom, a physician and as an entrepreneur. I recommend the book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H Pink. The author provides a compelling argument and important takeaways for why timing should be treated more like a science than an art. The reader is then forced to re-think how timing can dramatically impact one’s own life.
What is your favorite quote?
Perhaps one of my favorite quotes is Albert Einstein saying that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. I really like this quote because at the end of the day, many scientific discoveries come down to a fundamental principle. Indeed, as I’m finding in my own research, the principle is almost amazingly quite simple in that one concept can explain so many different phenomena. At the same time, as one tries to explain more & more complex situations, it is not uncommon for the model to then become more involved. Thus, the goal is to make things as simple as possible, but no simpler than that.
• Don’t get discouraged if others don’t agree with your ideas
• Always keep a positive outlook, even when things take a negative turn
• Be prepared to re-plan, re-investigate and re-design your work as needed
• As Einstein advises: Keep things as simple as possible but no simpler than that!