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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / May 2019 / Trying on Industry

Trying on Industry

By Viktoriya Anokhina, PhD Candidate

Last summer, I had a chance to participate in the Drug Development Conference for Early Career Scientists and Clinicians at Biogen. A week before the Biogen conference, we received a tentative schedule for the meeting. Each day was filled with speakers from Biogen's different departments who would share some science and specifics of their job. Each night, I expected to spend time exploring Boston.

When I arrived in at my hotel there was a folder waiting for me with our detailed Biogen schedule. All participants were divided into eight teams based on our CVs, and each group had a specific mission: to come up with a cure for a disease that Biogen had chosen for us. The company had chosen the disease – ours was Multiple Sclerosis – from their Biogen portfolio, suggested a specific target or pathway, and assigned us a particular stage (I – IV) of drug development to focus our efforts on. Over the next two days, my team's assignment was to move our hypothetical Multiple Sclerosis treatment that targeted B-cells to phase II clinical trials. My heart started pounding, and all symptoms of the Impostor Syndrome appeared. I was in a panic because the last time I took an Immunology class that could have helped me to sort out B cell problems was NEVER. Also, the only thing that I knew was that sclerosis was a neurological disease, and symptoms included tremor, unsteady gait. I had no idea what was the molecular mechanism underlying the disease. I met my team that consisted of one postdoc studying cancer at University of California-Davis and three graduate students from John Hopkins, Georgia Tech, University of Massachusetts. None of us worked on Multiple Sclerosis or with B cells. I calmed myself down a little bit when I remembered the motto of my undergraduate university: "We are not going to make you smarter, we will teach you how to think." I think the same motto is applicable to graduate school experiences! I spent my first  evening in Boston figuring out the who-is-who in Multiple Sclerosis and any potential therapies that use B-cell targeting. The next morning, I presented my team the key points of multiple sclerosis and potential molecular receptors on B cells that could be targeted to modulate the inflammatory response during autoimmunity.

Over the next two days, we had team activities and lectures that would help us with our projects. The first team activity was called Lifeline. Each team member drew a lifeline that introduced essential events and decisions that shaped their life and as well as their scientific journey. We also had to highlight what we thought were our key strengths and personality traits that would be beneficial for teamwork. You can see my lifeline, strengths and personality traits in the figure below. Looking back, I now understand that the lifeline was an essential task for team building. Because of the time limit of the conference, we did not have enough time to gradually get to know each other and understand each other’s working styles to work together more efficiently. In essence, the lifeline activity jumpstarted our teamwork and served as the glue for our team.

To help us be successful with our team projects, we had lectures that familiarized us with the entire process of drug discovery and development in the industry. Over the course of two days, we listened to approximately fourteen 45-minute talks and toured Biogen's Flow Cytometry Core capabilities. After these activities, we would arrive back to the hotel (tired!) and work on our assignments during the evening. We had a wide-range of speakers that included the Vice President of Late Stage of Clinical Development, the Director of Biologics Discovery, the Director of Imaging Development for Early research, and specialists from Marketing and Commercial Development. Each speaker started their talk by showing us their lifeline to demonstrate the educational and career path that led them to Biogen. Speakers also shared some specific tasks that they deal with daily and presented case studies to illustrate their points or projects that they worked on at Biogen. I realized that a biopharmaceutical company is a complex organism that consists of different units, closely interacting with other units. How Biogen forms that network of units depends completely on the project. So you could start on one team for a specific program based on your competencies, but after the completion of the assignment on that project, you could move laterally in terms of the aspects of the industry as well as hierarchically in terms of managerial roles. Thus, for attendees of Biogen’s Drug Development Conference, each project was a case study of what it means to be a part of Biogen: work is interdisciplinary, fast-paced, and requires you to communicate your point clearly and efficiently to your team. It is also important to be able to delegate and be honest with your team members on how you see the progression of the project and the team itself. Looking back at how our team implemented the project, we could have done some tasks better but I think we got valuable experiences from the time spent at Biogen. There are four vital points that I would like to share:

1) There are deadlines in the biopharmaceutical industry, and you have to comply with them. Being able to finish your work on time is essential. In graduate school, we have deadlines that our professors, department chairs, and journal editors create for us. At Biogen, you have interdependent relationships with many elements (e.g. assignments, phases, people, groups) of a flowchart. The next step is dependent on the previous one, so  if you are not complying with deadlines, you are slowing down the entire pipeline.

2) Teamwork and collaboration are important. As graduate students primarily in basic science departments, we tend to work alone. Often, a person works on one project at a time. Sometimes a lab has collaborations, but many times all interactions happen through the PI.

The more projects you work on – and the more projects you work on with others – provides a level of safety. If something does not work out, you will have someone to troubleshoot with and something else to work on. By working on more than one project, you might obtain crucial insights that could be essential for your other project and also learn to develop a successful organization and time management. Finally, collaborative projects might also teach you how to interact with different types of people and how to communicate your science to diverse audiences.

3) Knowing about key players and emerging technologies and startups is very important. I think if one is interested in a career in a particular industry, it is essential to know key players, emerging technologies and startups. There was a moment at the Drug Development Conference when I asked a professional entrepreneur (a previous Biogen upper manager) a particular question about his experience as CEO at a new company. He was surprised by the question, happy to answer, and thanked me for giving him the opportunity to use his elevator pitch! This interaction allowed me to have an in-depth networking discussion with him after his talk.

4) Experiential opportunities are everywhere, not just with internships. Overall, it was an excellent opportunity to “try on” the biopharmaceutical industry. The specifics of my graduate student projects and experiments do not allow me to be away from the lab for a three-month internship. This meeting at Biogen was a great and efficient way for me to explore a career in Pharma and to connect with people that might be able to help me in the door.

Vika's Lifeline

Tracey Baas | 5/7/2019

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