WEST Wisdom Blog

Career Possibilities: Research & Discovery

Posted by Nina Arnone on Jan 10, 2022 8:01:52 PM

On January 19th, at 6:15 PM EST, WEST will be kicking off our Career Possibilities Panel & Speed Networking series with an event on R&D Discovery. The panelists are Daniela Cipolletta, Director of Immunology at Seismic Therapeutic; Dennis Dean, Principal Investigator at Seven Bridges; Kate Henry, Scientist II in the Gene Therapy Accelerator Unit at Biogen; Kristin Horton, Sr. Director Translational at Rubius Therapeutics; Colles Price, Research Scientist at Vizgen; and Lilly Vollmann, Associate Principal Scientist at Merck. The discussion will be moderated by Kristine McKinney, Sr. Director at Moderna Genomics and WEST Advisory Board Member. This panel is designed to help you think about your career path and the different options that are open to you.

What an amazing chance we have, not just to have this event with our panelists, but to have their insight on the things young professionals want to know. We asked some questions, they gave some answers and we would love to share them with you.

If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?  What is the best advice you ever received?

"You’ll find plenty of places that desperately need you because you’re brilliant (you really are) and they need awesome people like you. But does the work excite you?" - Colles Price

Colles Price: "The best professional advice I ever received (which ironically came from an amazing mentor/colleague who ultimately rejected me for the initial job I applied to) came in the form of two questions: 1) Will this position help me grow as a scientist and make me happy and 2) Do I have something to contribute to this company?  You’ll find plenty of places that desperately need you because you’re brilliant (you really are) and they need awesome people like you.  But does the work excite you?  Do you see yourself there years from now?  Do you see the company making you better and do you see yourself making it better?  Do you have hobbies, interests, goals, travel plans, fun shenanigans you have in mind, and will this position enable you to pursue all those plans without sacrifice?  Importantly, will you be valued?  Can you make a contribution to the company? What will be your impact?  These can be hard questions to answer, particularly because so many of us struggle with imposter syndrome but they are some of the most important."

Dennis Dean: "You will be a leader; time as an independent contributor is counting down. Value the time spent in a leadership position during your training. You value people above information; that will be your strength."

"This is the time you can dip into unchartered water and are allowed to make mistakes, learn new tricks, and broaden your skills / expertise."
-Lilly Vollmann

Lilly Vollmann: "Learn something new! Early in the career (think after your postdoc, first 1-2 industry jobs), you have the great opportunity to branch out, try new things (area of expertise, techniques, etc). This is the time you can dip into unchartered water and are allowed to make mistakes, learn new tricks, and broaden your skills / expertise. As you advance in your career, it becomes harder to drastically branch as the focus shifts from developing yourself to developing your team." 

In what way has the industry shifted most in your lifetime? Is it for the better or worse? How can one expect it to continue to change in the future? What is the most important thing for young professionals to pay attention to when looking at a company/looking for a job?

Kate Henry: "I see a shift in culture from trying to advance science and therapeutics to advancing careers. It is great to see women in science especially taking control over their careers. I would love to see a better balance of developing scientists in this field while keeping the focus on collaborative, good science. I think good opportunities will almost always follow good science. There are two criteria that I think are important for young professionals to keep in mind when evaluating potential opportunities: the scientific rigor of the company and the investment of leadership in the development and support of junior scientists."

Colles Price: "From my total scientific experience (high school, undergraduate, masters, doctoral, postdoc, and current) I have seen the lines blend more and more between academia and industry. This might be a controversial statement but ultimately what I mean is that academia is doing more applied research, looking at new therapies, understanding therapeutic mechanisms, and making critical clinical discoveries. Meanwhile, industry is doing “basic” research, understanding how pathways function, and identifying new components and fundamental components. This is easily reflected with the increased number of industry scientists publishing papers, either in collaboration with academics or by themselves. Academics receive an increasingly higher number of patents and are paving the way to clinical trials and new patient-driven discoveries. By far I think these changes are for the better. It is easier to communicate between academia and industry, build important collaborations, and the science/research is better for it."

Dennis Dean: "Life Science moves very quickly. Tools update regularly. Collaborations startup to answer new questions. Adapting and reprioritizing are essential. Team members move on to new pastures. Required skillsets to meet the current need is always changing. Embracing change is a must.

We are transitioning from a start-up to an established company which brings much more reporting and emphasis on ROI. My job as a leader is to translate ROI to how we impact our collaborators in an efficient manner. 

Look for a mentoring environment with built-in opportunities for growth in an area you are excited about.

Know your trade-off between opportunity and compensation. There could be a position that you are not familiar with (consider the risk of changing to something new)."

Daniela Cipolletta: "I began my career within big pharma and I witnessed several paradigm shifts:

  • Adopting a leaner and more focused model by divesting non-core assets and focusing on their areas of strength
  • Increased appetite to externalize by accessing external innovation through collaborations with the academic institutions and biotech
  • A much greater attention to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

I believe all those shifts are for the best. Today over 65% of the products in pharma’s pipeline came from biotech (against the 10% of 15 years ago).  Biotechs are now known not only for their good ideas but also for being able to advance their products all the way through. The increased appetite of the pharma industry has taken away some of the early financing risk in building companies. As a result, a richer pool of talent is now more interested and comfortable in joining the biotech world. 

In my opinion the convergence of IT/ Machine learning and biological sciences is another area that would have a significant impact on the industry approach to drug creation and development in the near future.

When it comes to finding or transitioning to a new job it is not uncommon that each individual would rank differently their priorities. Job title has never been something which has driven me personally because often it does not reflect the nature of your role and your responsibilities. My suggestion for young professionals is to make sure you are passionate about the purpose/mission of the company. Your new role must be meaningful to you and should inspire you to do your very best. Company culture has been essential for me. Make sure you fully embrace your company’s values. Last but not least, I highly recommend looking for a company that invests in the growth of its people and provides opportunities to develop skills which will help you achieve your long-term goals, whatever they might be."

What do you believe is the most important quality for recent graduates and young professionals to hone into a mastered skill as they enter the working world?

Be curious and humble! Be open minded, learning comes from anywhere. - Daniela Cipolletta

Daniela Cipolletta: "Be curious and humble! Be open minded, learning comes from anywhere. The academic training provides you with very valuable skills and the necessary resilience to persevere in science. However, the academic training often does not introduce their fellows to the drug discovery process and/or make them ready for managerial or leadership roles. Compared to the time when I made the transition from academia to industry, now freshly minted PhDs can easily join industry without doing a post doc first. And I believe this makes a lot of sense to all those graduates that have a desire to make a drug and opt out of the academic route."

Dennis Dean: "Develop a set of skills that you can contribute to a project. Then learn how to collaborate with those skills set in a way that shows collaborating with you increases team productivity/quality."

Lilly Vollmann: "I would actually warn against becoming a “one trick pony”. Def hone your special skill(s), it is likely what will get you hired early in your career but branch out, make it applicable, teach others in your new role (AKA “make yourself replaceable” so there won’t be a big gap if you were to get promoted)."

Colles Price: "I think that communication is the most important skill any person can practice, improve and perfect as a young professional.  Regardless of your numerous successes or potential failures, they don't mean much without the ability to communicate them appropriately. In biotech you’ll find yourself working with different teams and different groups of people and effective communication is critical to work well as a group.  As you rise through the ranks and lead larger and larger teams of your own then these communication skills you’ve been building will prove even more valuable."

What led you to your current work? Were you following a plan for yourself or was it unexpected?

Lilly Vollmann: "I did not have a plan (that I followed). Switching to industry was a process for me and I made the decision to switch when I was interviewing for academic post doc positions. In industry, I see myself on a classical path: team member à team leader à group leader à etc. But I also had doubts at some point and looked into other career paths such as business development."

Dennis Dean: "Family events shifted my focus from academia to industry as a way to have a stable income. Once I knew I would shift, I developed a plan towards precision medicine. Could not predict the details of any of my transitions though."

How does one stay motivated in a job they don't like in order to go on to one they do like?

Dennis Dean: "The best way out or up is to demonstrate mastery where you are at. Set goals on what you need to achieve and the strategy for achieving. Look at your core value for personal motivators. I believe in supporting people. I remind myself that when I do x person y will benefit."

Lilly Vollmann: "If you don’t like your job, you need to find out what makes you unhappy and if you can change that. What is it about the job you don’t like? The project? The workload? Your role? Your peers / managers? Etc? Once you have identified what it is, are the actionable steps for you to take to improve your situation? (E.g. have that hard conversation with your manager.) If you are unhappy in your position and you cannot change that in your current job, it is time to move on."

How can one be sure that moving onto a new job is the right career move when the current job is also a very good one? 

"Do the introspective work to understand what would lead to a better quality of life for you." - Dennis Dean

Dennis Dean: "Do your homework to learn as much about the new position as you can. You should be able to communicate what you expect to be different in the new position.

Do the introspective work to understand what would lead to a better quality of life for you.

Review your work-life balance. Is there a benefit to staying in a good position rather than changing (ex. Completing a certificate, completing a degree, or finishing a large project)?" 

What is an aspect of your work that you never expected to be as important as it is?

"Pursuing a career in the sciences, I never anticipated emotional intelligence to be so critical." - Kate Henry

Kate Henry: "Pursuing a career in the sciences, I never anticipated emotional intelligence to be so critical. It influences the overarching culture within a department and/or company, how you process and integrate feedback, and how you lead a project team. People with high emotional intelligence have a better capacity to understand and thereby motivate others."

Lilly Vollmann: "Emotional intelligence. Working well with others will help build teams and test ideas. In general, if you have a new idea and you want to know if there is merit, you will most likely need help from others to test your hypothesis. You will need to have tested your hypothesis to some degree before you will be able to recruit higher level buy-in. Thus, if you carry yourself with integrity and treat your peers with emotional intelligence, it will be much easier to recruit support and build successful teams."

Dennis Dean: "I am taking a coaching course in February because I find coaching my team pays the highest return on my time. Corollary: Easy to find skillset. Harder to find skilled collaborators. Mentoring is front and center in most that I do."


2022-01-19 2x1


Topics: Transitions, Career, Panel, Upcoming Events, Lessons Learned, Career Path, Career Possibilities, #WESTevent, #WESTorg, Research & Development

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