Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Senior Research Scientist – Vertex Pharmaceuticals Europe (Ltd)
Approximate salary range for your type of role: competitive and variable, dependent on experience, check individual websites for details.
After my PhD in protein crystallography/structural biology I got a job as a post-doc at Diamond Light Source ltd, I was offered various positions at research universities but decided upon a move to the national synchrotron facility. Diamond, whilst technically still research council funded, is more akin to a private company (the research councils were the largest stock holder in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust). Initially at Diamond I was involved in the final assembly and commissioning of the initial phase of Macromolecular Crystallography beamlines. As time progressed and the beamlines moved into standard operation I was involved in running the user program and was able to develop an individual research project. During the course of my research project I began I collaboration with a biotechnology company focusing on structural biology of membrane proteins from bacterial pathogens. I obviously managed to make a good impression with our collaborators, as I managed to move into an industry position with them. In this position I now work across multiple disciplines from construct design, protein production and structural biology.
After almost seven years my current role has evolved into managing aspects of research projects as part of an international team – also filling technical niches in membrane protein biology and biophysics, whilst still being involved in design and production of proteins for compound screening and structural biology.
The position of Senior Research Scientist sits above Research Associate (Graduate level), and Research Scientist I+II (PhD. +/- experience) but below Research Fellow (Project leader or director level). Being this position allows me to participate both in project level discussions and bench-based work to drive projects forward – it really is the best of both worlds.
At Vertex we are interested in developing transformational medicines for diseases with high-unmet need using a precision medicine approach. This means in the real world we have to spend a lot of time and resources in understanding the underlying biology of diseases before we can even decide which targets are worth following. For this reason there is significant overlap with a more academic like research, and this made the transition from academia to industry easier for me.
Due to constantly changing demands and requirements of the projects we are working on there is no such thing as a typical week. An example of a recent week required a scale-up protein expression for one target, purification of milligram quantities of protein for a different project and a series of buffer optimizations and biophysical binding assays. I am lucky in that I get to do genuine research into the underlying mechanisms of particular diseases, but also directly on mechanisms which can treat those underlying causes.
My favourite aspect of working in industry is the feeling of a direct connection to a tangible medicine and hearing from patients who have benefitted from such treatments – this drives us to invest the time and effort into the development of novel treatments. Job stability is an interesting concept in industry we have potential for a longer contracts than those of academia, but in the ever changing world there is always a chance of companies moving, or closing their research sites.
It’s not essential to have a Ph. but it does allow you to enter at a higher level and have a more significant impact on the direction of project – the PhD demonstrates your ability to design and implement a complex research strategy, and deliver results in a defined time frame.
From my point of view some of the most critical skills for getting ahead when changing career are also some of the most awkward. Collaborations and networking are key aspects to try and develop, you will be potentially competing with equally talented and technically capable individuals, but, the people you’ve worked with or who are aware of you may help to sway a decision in your favour. It’s also important to be able to exhibit key transferable skills and knowledge, within a broader context – for example it is important for me to be able to put a very detailed molecular mechanism into the global context of the disease/disorder. Keeping both big picture and fine detail in mind is a balance.
The work can at times be extremely stressful and project priorities (and the priority of the project itself) can change on a daily basis, but ultimately it’s very rewarding. It’s especially rewarding when you can hear about the benefits to patients lives something you have worked on (albeit as a small part of an international team) has made!