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: Lead Structural Biologist at Navigen Inc.
Approximate salary range for your type of role: US$80,000 – US$120,000 depending upon location and size of company.
Unbeknown to me my journey to where I am now started during the second year of my undergraduate degree when we selected our third-year lab projects. During this process, I remember being told that it was very likely that we would get one of our top three choices, so I paid attention to my first five choices and filled out the remainder of the form with projects that contained the word ‘structure’ and seemed remotely interesting. Imagine my surprise when I was notified of my lab project and I discovered that I had my seventh choice. Once I had calmed down, read and reread what my project was going to be, I told myself that research is research and I could apply what I knew to any problem.
The work I did during that project resulted in my supervisor, Prof. Mike Williamson, offering me a PhD, which I accepted. When I was coming towards the end of my PhD studies, Mike forwarded an email to me about an opportunity at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in San Diego. The opportunity was with a scientist Mike had previously worked with, called Kurt Wüthrich, who in 2002 had shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in developing Nuclear Magnetic Resonance(NMR) spectroscopy. I met Kurt and he offered me the position, so I moved to America to continue my research career.
I enjoyed my time working with Kurt but researching in an academic environment just did not satisfy me. Kurt noticed this, talked to me and suggested that industrial research may suit me better, and when he became aware of a Postdoctoral position at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) he encouraged me to apply. I was successful and moved to Northern California to start my new position.
Kurt was right, I loved every minute of the four years I spent working at NIBR. The research performed at NIBR was highly collaborative and we had scientists involved in all areas of drug discovery working under one roof. The group I was working in not only performed NMR but covered all aspects of structural biology and biophysics; this gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn and develop as a scientist. This was supported and encouraged by my supervisors as they knew that for me to be attractive for positions in industry, I needed to be knowledgeable and proficient in a number of different techniques.
Even though I was enjoying my research at NIBR it took a while for me to fully understand why I preferred industrial research over academic research. The work done in academic groups is typically focused on a specific discipline or area of expertise, while the work done in industry is much more applied and multidisciplinary. When working in my academia, I worked for three years and published a number of papers however I do not know if people are using this research or how much of an impact to the field I actually made. After one year of working in industry, I successfully developed a new protocol, but before we had published it, I was sitting in team meetings where other scientists were describing how this methodology was being used and having a positive impact on company projects. The feeling that I had that day was incredible! To know that the research I was performing was having a direct impact in the development of drugs that would be used to save lives or make people better was amazing. At that stage I was sold on working in industry and to be honest I have never looked back.
When I finished my work at NIBR, I successfully got a position to head a structural biology group at a startup company called Navigen. Navigen is interested in discovering short D-peptides that can be used as therapeutics. The company will screen tens of thousands of short peptide sequences and those that interact with the target of interest. At this stage, this is where my team and I will look to characterize how the peptide interacts with the protein target and determine the structure of the protein-peptide complex. This can be done using a variety of different techniques including NMR, thermal shift or biochemical assays, Surface Plasmon Resonance (SPR) and X-Ray Crystallography. The overall objective is to obtain a protein-peptide structure, which we can use to both understand the mechanism of action and to optimize the peptide-protein interactions so we can turn it into a therapeutic.
This work is highly collaborative and due to the multidisciplinary nature of my group, we interact with and can provide an impact to project teams throughout the entire drug discovery process. This is exciting because although we use the same skills and techniques, we apply them in very different ways to answer the different questions that arise.
In addition to the science and laboratory work that I do, a portion of my time needs to be spent on making decisions that further the direction of the company. In order for our company to grow, we continually need to identify disease areas that we can develop new, or better therapeutics for. This involves a lot of reading, research and analysis of pre-existing data. The decision to devote time to researching into a specific disease area is multifactorial and is based on more than just the science.
As a result, the team tasked with making these decisions come from a number of different backgrounds, so I need to break down my area of expertise and communicate it to the team in an effective way that both scientists and non-scientists can understand. This is a very important skill to develop because you can do world-class research, but if you cannot communicate it effectively to your audience, then not as many people will pay attention to it or use it.
I love the work I do and enjoy going to work every day, however industrial research may not be for everyone. Research often brings up more questions than answers, and academia provides you with an avenue to explore these questions. Industrial research however is very focused on answering a specific question and you need to be happy to leave questions unanswered, if the answers do not directly benefit the project, or leave projects incomplete, if the company decides that it needs to change direction.
Research in industry is also incredibly high paced and very demanding, so to be successful you need to be happy working to strict deadlines and in a high-pressure environment. One other major consideration is that although the UK is starting to get more of a presence in the drug development scene, major companies and many startups are based in mainland Europe or in the USA. This means that for the majority of people, if you wish to pursue this path you also need to be happy to up-root and move your life to a new country.
In industry, there are jobs for both PhD and non-PhD level scientists, but non-PhD level scientists will often find that their progress and promotion in a company is often capped at a certain level. Irrespective of the position, jobs in industry are highly competitive with hiring managers typically getting more applications for positions than they can realistically handle. If your application comes with a recommendation from a personal contact of the hiring manager, or from a senior researcher in the field who is well known, then hiring managers will pay a little more attention to that particular application.
That only gets you past the first stage however and you still need to prove that you can perform good science and fit into the working environment. Hiring managers pay significant attention to an applicant’s personality. Due to the highly collaborative nature of the work done in industry, you interact with a number of different researchers so hiring someone who can fit in is just as important as someone who can do good science.
My advice to people who are looking to follow a career in industry would be the following:
Be open to try new experiences and take opportunities as and when they present themselves to you. It is never too early to start thinking about the future.
At an early stage of your PhD, identify the key researchers who are in the field of expertise that interest you, and start researching into potential fellowships that you can apply for to fund Postdoctoral Research. When you finish your PhD, if you’re lucky, that lab you’re interested in may have funding for a Postdoctoral Research position, however having your own funding can significantly help when applying to those labs for positions.
Finally, grow your professional network and don’t be afraid to use it when applying for positions. If you work hard and produce good results, scientists are typically very open to helping younger researchers succeed.