Garner Soltes’ lifelong passion for science and research inspired him to complete a PhD in microbiology. But while auditing a few courses on public health, he discovered there were ways he could make a difference outside a lab.
“I learned that health problems, like antibiotic resistance, have many important components beyond biology,” he says. “We can innovate to create new incentives, policies, and other mechanisms to solve public health challenges. I got excited about the idea of having an outsized impact on public health using my biological knowledge. Consulting became a clear opportunity for me to continue honing those skills beyond my PhD training."
This new career goal led Soltes to pursue a consultant role, joining Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2017. He currently leads his own team as a principal, and has helped solve numerous problems in the healthcare space—including working with public health leaders on their vaccine program efforts in response to COVID-19.
Here, Soltes talks about how BCG has supported his growth, the skills that have made him a better problem-solver, and why you shouldn’t shy away from asking “silly” questions.
What initially attracted you to apply for a consulting role at Boston Consulting Group? How did you know the company would be a good fit?
I was a bit late to the game in thinking about consulting as a career, so I cast a pretty wide net in the beginning—but BCG quickly became a leading choice. I was immediately connected with consultants at the firm who were thrilled to chat about BCG, their work, and my ambitions. One even traveled to the outskirts of Brooklyn to meet me for coffee. He was so excited about the opportunity for me and loved his time at BCG so much—the feeling was infectious.
Describe your career path at BCG. How has the company supported your career growth over the last six years?
I started as a consultant, as do most PhDs or other advanced-degree folks. Over the past five years, I have broadly focused on healthcare across different clients, project types, teams, and geographies. During that time, I became a project leader and am now a principal leading teams and clients on the overall project or solution.
I started at BCG with a lot of enthusiasm but very little knowledge or experience in client service, much less in solving complex business problems. I took advantage of both formal trainings and learning opportunities—with my managers and professional coaches, as well as informal ones with great mentors and team members—all of which helped me grow as a professional and leader faster than I could have ever imagined.
What types of clients do you work with? What’s an example of a problem you’ve helped solve?
At different points, I have partnered with clients in various sides of healthcare, from public health officials and academics to top biopharma and biotechs.
For example, I have partnered with leading biopharma clients to define their future research and development strategy for a new technology that has curative potential. Projects like this at the frontier of new science are particularly exciting, as no one truly knows if the biology is going to prove itself out. Instead, we helped our clients develop future scenarios and gameplan their actions so that they were prepared to jump as soon as there was evidence in the potential of the therapy.
One of your biggest achievements at BCG has been your work in many facets of the COVID-19 response. Tell us more about your contributions and the impact they had.
I partnered with public health leaders at the local, state, and national level throughout the pandemic response, from early 2020 when the U.S. was figuring out how to balance public health and safety with the economic impact to the rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines. Our teams would run analyses on a daily basis to help leaders make data-based decisions to benefit the greatest number of people and the highest risk populations, as well as to develop contingency plans to be ready for the next challenge the pandemic presented. It was an unfortunate but rewarding experience to work side-by-side with such dedicated scientists, healthcare workers, and officials who put every ounce of their being into finding solutions for the public.
What are some of the skills you developed during your PhD in molecular biology that have helped you get to where you are today?
While my foundational understanding of biology and medicine certainly helps, the most valuable skill I use to this day is the hypothesis-based approach to problem solving. This way of thinking translates really well from the sciences to management consulting, as in both cases you lead with an “answer” and try to prove yourself wrong to get to the best, most data-driven recommendation or conclusion. It also helps our teams work more efficiently, as we focus on testing what “needs to be true” vs. analyzing reams of unnecessary data.
Outside of my PhD, I did a fair bit of science communication work, which has also helped a ton. Breaking down complex concepts to new audiences is a very valuable muscle to build in and outside of scientific fields.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
When I first joined BCG, I faced a lot of imposter syndrome and felt like I made it there by mistake. Because I worried so much about whether or not I “deserved” to be at BCG, I hesitated to reach out to colleagues, mentors, and leaders and tried to catch up on my own. I eventually realized how supportive and non-judgmental my teams and the broader BCG community are, and so I began to ask the questions I previously thought were too silly. I have never learned more, and more quickly, than in that time.
What’s one thing most people would be surprised to find out about you?
I have a pretty poor memory except when it comes to remembering song lyrics from the late 90s, which has been very helpful at weddings. It is a trait I am starting to see in my daughter, too—albeit not for the Goo Goo Dolls.
What are you currently reading, watching, and listening to?
I have a three-year-old at home, so I am currently reading a lot of holiday books about bunnies—but we do sneak in some Harry Potter or Winnie the Pooh here and there. During the pandemic, I became a Formula 1 racing convert, so I have been watching historical races sporadically when I can. And when I am traveling, I listen to a variety of comedy and general interest podcasts to unwind (though my top album on Spotify is still the Encanto soundtrack).