A Q&A with Tad Sonstegard

September 24, 2020

GCD alum shares his thoughts on life after graduation.


Tad Sonstegard received his Ph.D. in Genetics & Cell Biology (precursor to MCDB&G) 1995 and is currently the chief executive officer/chief science officer of Acceligen, a division of Recombinetics

What Brought you GCB (MCDB&G)?
I grew up on the family cattle ranch in Montevideo, Minnesota. I majored in Agricultural Biochemistry at Iowa State University with the goal of learning molecular biology to find best ways to produce and select superior livestock, which is key to running a successful food-producing enterprise.

What was your PhD thesis Project?
I entered the GCD program through Molecular Biology entrance that allowed a downstream choice of a particular graduate program. My project in the Hackett Lab was to determine how RNA structure and translation controlled the life cycle of Rous Sarcoma Virus (RSV). I chose the lab because it allowed me complete freedom to develop my own project from beginning to end and to gain a comprehensive foundation in molecular biology.

What was your best memory?
The moment I got the results from testing the effects of a hairpin RSV RNA structure that showed translation was not necessary for packaging viral RNA and virus production. It validated our single comprehensive model of RNA structural regulation of all steps in the retrovirus life cycle. 

What was your worst experience?
Not passing my first written prelim exam (which back in the day was a qualifying exam based on answering eight questions on molecular biology, genetics and cell biology); I passed the re-take.

Recommendations to current grad students:
Own your project; be independent at every step. Initiate a thesis project that is fundamental to your field of interest. In my case, there were only two other labs in the world working on retrovirus translational regulation and I was the only person in my lab (10 people).

Postdoc (USDA Meat ARC Clay Center)
My goal was to learn about animal breeding genetics and linkage analysis. My PhD experience, where I learned most aspects of molecular biology, set me apart from others in the field who could follow protocols but not create projects.

What is notable about your jobs since your PhD 25 years ago?
USDA - Research Animal Geneticist: I was recruited based on postdoc performance and kept on. My job was to develop livestock genetics. As at NIH, research publications were the basis for promotion. The most satisfying aspect of my USDA experience was getting “big papers” out, including those on transferring genome selection technology (tool) to industry – I made my goal in life that I set in my teens.

Acceligen – CEO and Chief Science Officer: I left USDA after 20+ years to returning to home (MN) and further develop genome engineering in livestock, goals that were congruent with my earliest goals. The increase in salary is nice but it is the biggest risk I have ever taken; the success of the whole company and employee jobs are dependent on me.

Your publishing record, 219 peer-reviewed papers and H index of 67 is extremely impressive since you have never had any graduate students or postdocs – How did that happen?
I had many collaborations especially in genome projects and the use of DNA chips that my teams developed. My PhD years in a lab with grad students from Asia and Europe taught me skills to respect cultural situations and develop international relationships.

How did you emerge with a distinctive reputation when working with so collaborators world-wide?
I have a reputation for getting things done, honest and in-depth analysis of all data coming out of collaborations, and ensuring publication of papers that make a difference. I learned as a PhD student to be ask critical questions, think through scientific problems and devise experiments to test the hypothesis.

Given your career of working in both government research labs and now a biotech startup, what advice do you have for students thinking of non-academic research jobs?
Passion and strong drive are essential to be successful. Your career goals should align with institutional (academic lab, government, biotech) goals. Make sure your projects will have an impact. Monetary incentive is in the background.

What preparations do you need to make a career in biotech or government?  
Creativity, a track record of productivity as a grad school and postdoc, and most importantly the drive to work very hard without giving up. In contrast of running an academic lab, the focus is on teamwork in government and startups.