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Photos courtesy of Daniel Sipes.

Daniel Sipes: Be Rigorous and Make Time to Experience Life

Like a page out of a MacGyver script, one could imagine Daniel Sipes, M.S., lashing a life raft together from duct tape, tubing and some electrical wire. What is more remarkable about this solo-sailing aficionado, former volunteer and forest firefighter and make-it-like-new handyman is the career he has crafted by developing relationships that have formed at the intersections of his hobbies and his work.


"It is important to take advantage of various life experiences and apply them in different areas of your life," says Sipes, SLAS2012 co-chair and member of the SLAS Board of Directors. "Throughout my life, I always had a lot of mechanical and technical projects going on. When I was younger, I worked on motorcycles, go karts, boats, engines and boat electronics. So when I started my laboratory career, it wasn't that hard to take that next step with whatever automation we were using. In addition to doing biology at the bench, I was considered an expert on the automation because I could find my way around it."

Aside from the mechanical advantages of his life's intersections, sharing his enchantment of ocean exploration, boating and fishing with colleagues has built many lasting relationships, which he has skillfully tended by staying in contact.

Setting Sail into Science

Developing his diverse background began with an intrigue for science and engineering that started during Sipes' youth in rural Northern California.

"I had a chemistry set and I also dabbled a lot with machines and electronics as a kid," he explains. "I saw the value of machines and really enjoyed them." At the same time, his family always emphasized the value of a good education. "I had a lot of respect for scientists, engineers and doctors," Sipes continues. "From a young age, I wanted to get a Ph.D. in science." He adds that work experience would alter this pursuit after he completed his undergraduate and master's degrees. His aptitude for the mechanics of science changed his career course substantially.

While earning his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a chemistry minor at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS), Sipes also worked a few engineering courses into his class schedule. At CSUS he had an inspirational professor and advisor, Dr. Laurel Heffernan. "She was putting the molecular biology program together. I was among the first graduates of her program," he says. Heffernan encouraged Sipes to pursue a summer internship at Genentech in South San Francisco, CA. "My application was a long shot. I was told there were over 1,000 applicants for approximately 20 positions," he says explaining his surprise when he received the internship.

That opportunity offered a glimpse of working in the science profession without a Ph.D., something Sipes at that time had not considered. The Genentech labs also had a fair amount of technical projects, giving Sipes his first exposure to fluorescence-activated cell sorting/screening (FACS), bioreactors and other technology. He began revising what his future might look like based on this experience. If he didn't pursue a Ph.D., he could align his career better with the technical aspects of the science and have more opportunities for his growing interest in ocean exploration. Shortly after the end of the internship, Genentech offered Sipes a full-time position, an unusual opportunity he decided to take, putting graduate school on hold for a few years. In the hybridoma laboratory Sipes established expertise in antigen preparation, fusions, assay development and screening as well as protein purification and characterization. He also cultivated a greater appreciation for the scientific process and how it could positively impact human health.

"At Genentech I had a couple of great mentors: Laura Bald and Brian Fendly. What they basically reinforced, among many other things, was that when you do something do it well. Always have the right controls in your experiments. If you multitask, multitask well, don't sacrifice anything," Sipes continues. "And mind the details of your techniques such as pipetting and calibrating pipetters. They really reinforced all those things you learn during your education." Sipes also spent a good deal of his free time taking friends and colleagues sailing on San Francisco Bay, an activity that would help cement relationships for his next career move.

A Year Off (and Four Years to Finance It)

Throughout the years at Genentech and the time he spent earning his master's degree in immunology at University of California Davis (UC Davis), Sipes dreamed of a long-distance, solo-sailing voyage. At first, he didn't have a definite destination in mind. The lure of independence and the idea of working his way around the world compelled him to refurbish an old boat for the adventure. New sails, standing rigging, all electrical and plumbing, updated electronics – the list to make this old boat like new was extensive. Therefore, the second step in Sipes' plan was to earn money to complete what would become a four-year project.

Both goals of funding a lengthy voyage and seeking a job created another intersection, says Sipes. A shared affection for the boating lifestyle led to a good relationship and a positive recommendation from his Genentech boss for his next career move to Ligand Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, CA, where he took a position in the transcription research department.

During his tenure at Ligand, while planning the big trip, Director Jon Rosen recognized Sipes' knack for automation. "Jon asked me if I would move to the ‘New Leads' department and help keep the HTS and other automated equipment going. I accepted. That was a big career opportunity for me," Sipes tells. "After that point, I was fairly focused on automation. While in that department I spent much of my time running and troubleshooting the existing automation, as well as procuring new platforms. When I left, I knew laboratory automation was the area I wanted to get into." While at Ligand, Sipes' time on the water increased, and sailing eventually seized center stage in his life. Before he made any other major life commitments, he had to see what an extended solo sailing trip might offer.

Rather than taking on his original dream of an around-the-world trip, Sipes decided instead on a single destination and set his sights on a round-trip voyage to Hawaii. He left Ligand and launched for Hawaii in January 1999. The trip across the Pacific took three weeks. "On the way across, I ran into some rough weather – to be expected that time of year. My only means of communicating to the mainland, a single-sideband radio, got wet and stopped transmitting. After that, I didn't have any communication whatsoever," he describes.

For two weeks straight on the open seas, Sipes did not see another sign of human life. No boats, no ships, no jet contrails overhead. This disconnect became a great time to reconnect with what he wanted in life and determine how to unite it with his career plan.

Sipes landed in Hilo, Hawaii in late January. He then spent several months exploring the Hawaiian Islands. He was occasionally joined by family and friends from the mainland. The locals were also very kind. When folks heard about the solo voyage, they would invite him to their homes, out to dinner or to parties. He also spent some time in the company of other solo voyagers. "These guys were more adventurous than I. One sailed from Japan to Mexico then to Hawaii where he was preparing for the South Pacific. Another was running a self-built, 64-foot commercial fishing schooner – solo. While I envied their adventures, I also knew I had a career ahead of me in drug discovery," Sipes says. "I enjoy the ocean, but I like to have solid ground under my feet and a good home. I decided to develop a more traditional avenue for exploring the ocean and my hobbies."

Bringing it All Together

In the summer he departed Hanalei Bay, Kauai for San Francisco. The crossing took four weeks. He then sailed 50 miles inland to Bethel Island and landed at the dock of his parents' home, where he had grown up. There he spent a couple of weeks making repairs and getting the boat ready for the final 500-mile trip back to San Diego. During this trip south he began to think about how to land a good job and develop a career at a good company. Shortly after returning to San Diego, a boating connection soon led to a job connection. During a fishing trip with his former Ligand boss and his wife, who had recently been hired at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF, part of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research), San Diego, CA, the couple shared information about an opening at GNF that they thought might suit Sipes. "GNF was developing what was to be the best HTS technology in the industry. I was lucky to get in on the ground floor of that initiative." Twelve years, a position with another company and two promotions later, Sipes' role as director of Advanced Automation Technologies (AAT) at GNF continues to unfold. The 17-member AAT group manages technology and improves its impact on drug development and basic research.

Sipes credits the close relationships he enjoys with GNF leadership to the mentoring environment cultivated within the company. A familiar face was GNF Institute Director H. Martin Seidel, Ph.D. Seidel and Sipes have worked together for almost 20 years. "He has given me opportunities through the course of working at several companies," Sipes says. "Before Martin worked at GNF, he hired me to set up a full HTS lab in San Diego for a different company, Dupont Pharmaceuticals, which was later purchased by BMS. That was the first time I got carte blanche to set up something from scratch. While the business didn't pan out (BMS pulled out of San Diego), it was good to have his confidence. From this experience, I went on to set up a full HTS and compound management infrastructure for a GNF spin-off company, Kalypsys, where I was eventually promoted to director."

He also credits current GNF boss, Jennifer L. Harris, Ph.D., director of Drug Discovery Biology, and colleague Robert Downs, executive director of Engineering, Informatics and IT, for their support of both his career and his involvement in SLAS.

Sipes discusses his career obstacles, but not without noting how SLAS helped him navigate those challenges. "One obstacle is, to some extent, that I don't have a Ph.D. I think, at least on paper, that I get overlooked for some things," Sipes explains. "Sometimes you have to put your hand up a bit higher than people with more advanced degrees. It hasn't stopped me from accomplishing what I set out to do. Not having a Ph.D. was deliberate. I wanted a different career path."

Volunteering to work on inter-disciplinary committees in the workplace is one way to "put your hand up," Sipes explains. He is active on the biologic safety and capital review committees at GNF. The extra time spent is helpful, as is his volunteer work with SLAS.

"My company really recognizes the work I do with SLAS," says Sipes. "They think it's a benefit to GNF, as well as to me and the industry. Whenever I take on a new role at SLAS, I always bounce it off my boss and other managers to let them know. They appreciate the extra effort and how it benefits GNF. I promote GNF by meeting and recruiting new talent and by getting the word out about the company. For instance, I have a fantastic group and want to keep the bar high when I have an opportunity to bring in new talent. My involvement with SLAS can help with that."

Another obstacle he describes is his being something of an introverted person. Serving as an active SLAS volunteer leader has provided experiences and education that have expanded Sipes' connections in the profession and growth in managerial experiences.

"I have taken advantage of the networking opportunities in SLAS. In my early years, my involvement was focused on the conference, exhibits and speaking. That all really helped my career. Starting in 2008, I thought I should give back to the Society. Since then, I have given back more than I thought I would," he says with a chuckle. "It's been a great experience being on the SLAS Board of Directors. I haven't had experience with this before, so it's quite enlightening seeing how an organization works from the inside and participating in the strategy and decision-making."

Testing the Depths

Did a return to life on land stop his forays to the ocean? Not at all, reports Sipes, who arrived at SLAS2012 in San Diego via his boat and kept it in the marina behind the conference. "I took some folks out for a tour of the bay as well as hosted a party or two – it was great networking and fun."

His love of the ocean and its impact on creating valuable intersections in his life was too important. It was a matter of aligning his passion for exploration with his work and, eventually, family life.

"I love the ocean, but I knew I wanted to have some activities that didn't take me away for weeks or months at a time. So I started doing more deep sea fishing. When the kids came along – a daughter, now 7, and a son, now 5 – even the fishing took away too much time. To find the bigger fish, you either spend all day or a few days away from family," says Sipes, who decided, instead, to take up spear fishing. "It is great because the local waters have nice fish for this sport. You can go for half a day and have a great fulfilling time, without being away from your family too long."

Before he picked up his spear gun, Sipes had to learn to navigate the deep. He did this by learning to free dive. Diving was something with which Sipes had some youthful experience. "When I was a kid, I used to go diving for abalone and scuba diving on the North coast with my family, so I already had experience in the cold water off Northern California," says Sipes, who can hold his breath for more than five minutes. "A GNF colleague and I took a course from some world-champion free divers from Performance Freediving International, who were in San Diego in 2008. They taught me the techniques for holding your breath longer and how to relax underwater," Sipes says, explaining that with little effort these techniques helped increase his 35-foot dives to 120-foot dives. As it is easy to lose track of time in the aquatic environment, Sipes monitors the dive time and depth underwater using a special dive watch. "Once I developed the free dive skills, then I started doing the actual spear fishing," he continues.

Other than the dive watch, the only other equipment the free dive requires is a special flexible wet suit, which is warmer than a regular wet suit, extra long swim fins and a low-volume mask that allows easier equalization of the water pressure the further one dives. "I have a couple of spear guns as well," Sipes adds.

He is selective in his hunting and all his catches end up on the dinner table. "I go for the bigger white sea bass and yellowtail. When I do spear fish, I like to eat the fish fresh, so I tend to give a lot of it away. I won't keep it in the freezer for months. If I get a one, I invite over a lot of family and friends to barbeque," Sipes says.

Following in his amphibious footsteps, the Sipes kids, like their dad, love all ocean activities. Fishing, diving and swimming fill family time. Meanwhile, at the helm is Sipes' wife, Tamara, who, while supportive, prefers boating more than underwater activities.

"If you are lucky enough to have a passion, make time for it because you don't just find time," Sipes stresses. "Boating and my ocean activities have always had a positive effect upon my career."

He relates that one of the positive results he developed was improved problem solving skills. From understanding hydrodynamic forces to grasping the networking properties of boat electronics – virtually nothing from his pastime has been unused during his day job. "If there is a problem, find a solution to propose. It doesn't do much good to just tell your superior there's a problem," he says. He calls this one of the most important things he learned in life and in his career.

"There's a big difference between people who take initiative and try to figure the best way forward, and people who just do what they are told," Sipes says. Whether testing the depths of the ocean or overseeing laboratory operations on land, Sipes' overall advice for career and life is: always be rigorous and make time to experience life.

"I was a volunteer firefighter in high school and while on summer breaks from college, served as a forest firefighter on a fire engine crew. You learn a lot from that type of work about operating under pressure," he concludes. "Auto accidents, medical emergencies, fires – situations like this call for you to think clearly and act quickly. Not to mention developing the personal skills to sometimes be with your coworkers for weeks on end with long hours and no days off. Having these experiences really helps to keep work situations in perspective."

November 9, 2012