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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / October 2015 / Life is Hard: Keep Your Eyes Fixed on the Prize

Life is Hard: Keep Your Eyes Fixed on the Prize

Career Story Blog Post By Andrew Tomaras, PhD, Vice President and Director of Microbiology at BacterioScan Inc.

I was 3.5 years old when my sister was born with Down Syndrome, and one of the earliest childhood memories I can recall was being at the hospital with all of my extended family members awaiting her arrival.  Needless to say, it was not the typical glee-filled event.  During her early life, my sister struggled with multiple medical issues common in Down’s – she had open heart surgery at 6 weeks old, got pneumonia constantly (which always seemed to happen while on family vacations), and had to undergo speech therapy starting at a very young age.  The constant exposure I had to emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, etc. really impacted me in a way that I wouldn’t fully comprehend until later in life.  My interest in science, particularly in medicine and human disease, was undoubtedly fueled by these early childhood experiences.

Naturally I entered college as a pre-med major, and college was…..well……college.  I did alright, but definitely had my fun.  One of the core requirements for my microbiology major was to do a semester of laboratory research, which I did in the department’s ecology lab.  It gave me an awesome research experience, even though it wasn’t directly related to human medicine.  Now up until this point, I had been gung-ho for medical school, then suddenly this fantastic research experience completely threw my world into a tailspin.  Not surprisingly, I extended my research appointment to the second semester of senior year, and found myself truly struggling to decide how best to proceed.  My academic advisor suggested that I apply to Master’s degree programs, which would afford me the opportunity to (A) get a better handle on how research might be as a career, and (B) help to bolster my not-so-stellar undergraduate academic record.  Despite the fantastic experience I had working in ecology, I knew that I would have to move more towards the side of human medicine if I were to give this a fair shot relative to medical school. 

It took only 6 weeks of working with my thesis advisor before the idea of medical school was relegated to a fleeting thought.  My advisor had (and still has) an infectious passion for science, and I quickly fell victim to his enthusiasm.  In his lab I learned invaluable life skills that have been (and still are) critical to my everyday life – multitasking, troubleshooting, and teamwork.  Four and a half years later, I completed my graduate work, spending much of the final 9 months exploring post-doctoral fellowship options.  As is the case at many institutions, we were never educated about industry options, as industry was always considered to be “the dark side.”  Instead, my post-doc took place in another academic lab that focused on bacterial pathogenesis, and it was there that I was given the opportunity to perform high-throughput screens to identify new antibacterial agents. 

Interestingly, my post-doc advisor wound up serving as a consultant to Pfizer’s antibacterial group around the same time I was starting to look for “real” jobs.  I must have applied to 75 positions through every company’s website that I could think of.  If the job description seemed to align with my skill sets, I applied.  And although I always seemed to satisfy the minimal requirements stated in the posting, I literally heard back from only 2 of those applications.  In the meantime, my advisor comes back from a consulting trip to Pfizer and informs me that they’re looking for a microbial geneticist to join their team and that he gave them my name.  My first interview was a whirlwind – heard all about the programs, the company, and the culture.  These weren’t the greedy, cut-throat people I had been warned about in “academia versus industry” discussions.  These were people doing real science who were passionate about making a difference.  A second interview a couple months later, and I was hooked.  So my wife and I packed up and moved 2000 miles east.  The Friday before my first day, one of my colleagues-to-be took me out to lunch.  Our labs were going to have complementing functions, so I figured she wanted to have the chance to get to know me a bit better and help answer any questions I may have to ease the transition process.  Little did I know that she was about to drop a bomb.

Turns out that just after I had accepted the offer and initiated the relocation process, the Pfizer brass had announced a 30% headcount reduction across the board.  The execs realized that they needed to cut costs to help absorb the shock of losing ~$14B (yes billion, with a “B”) per year once generic Lipitor hit the market.  Yet no one had informed me of this announcement, and I figured there’d be no way I’d survive this round of layoffs.  In what turned out to be true Pfizer fashion, the layoff timeframe didn’t align with initial plans, so rather than having 2 weeks before getting the axe, I wound up having 6 months.  I figured I had a little bit of time to get some industry experience, do some solid science, and perhaps prove my worth to my immediate supervisors.  Ultimately, when the time came to decide who stayed and who went, I kept my job. 

With that round of layoffs behind me, I got back to business and saw my lab size grow from 2 to 6 scientists.  With that many direct reports, it was a significant juggling act to stay in the lab myself while also doing what needed to be done to help further their scientific development and keep project needs on schedule (multitasking, remember?).  But for about 2 years after that, life was good.  We were advancing what we thought were the right projects, and killing those that were not.  We went to conferences and presented our work, wrote papers, built up reputations, and really felt like we had a legitimate shot at getting some antibiotic candidates into clinical trials.  Boy, were we wrong.

It was early on a Tuesday morning that one of my direct reports sent me a text that would forever change my world - “Why do we have a mandatory meeting that was just put on our calendars for 8:00AM?” - and my heart sank to new depths.  The entire group was being dissolved for business/strategic purposes, even though we had two late-stage pre-clinical candidates ready to make the transition to clinical development, and despite our group having had its most productive year in the last 20.  Pfizer “simply” decided that antibacterials was not going to be one of its core therapeutic areas of emphasis anymore.  In the weeks that followed, I started working the network that I had established in the years prior, explaining the situation, pointing to my efforts and accomplishments to help promote myself, but nothing materialized.  Everyone wanted to help, but were struggling through budget justifications and fighting for their own existences in parallel.  Much to my surprise, I was approached by one of my peers about a unique opportunity to help start up a new group, still within Pfizer, that would remain focused on antibacterials.  The caveats being that it would concentrate on monoclonal antibodies as antibiotics rather than the small molecules/traditional approaches we had focused on up to that point. It would also require moving from Connecticut to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Again, with my limited options, this seemed to make the most sense.  So my family and I made the 100-mile trek north.

The new group was really cool – no encumbrances from previous historical research experience, a moderately-sized budget (especially for the 9 people that comprised the group), and the idea of working on the problem from a completely new angle really scratched me right where I itched.  Similarly to the last group, we made tremendous progress – and novel candidates were discovered, characterized, and moved along the pre-clinical development process.  How did we not see this coming…again?

We were 18 months into this craziness when we had another mandatory meeting put on our calendars.  Budget cuts again – “nothing to do with the remarkable amount of scientific progress this group has made over the past 18 months” was the line we were fed.  Just couldn’t make ends meet at some higher level, and we were an easy target to provide some savings.  We were, however, offered the chance to write for federal funding to help keep us afloat.  Imagine that! The world’s largest pharmaceutical company – which, by the way, started out as an antibiotics company and was the first to market penicillin – needed help from government money. Money was necessary to keep us invested in a therapeutic area where the medical need was already unmet and getting worse, and we had solid lead candidates to move through the pipeline.  Unbelievable, but such was our reality.  So we wrote a grant, and it got rave reviews.  The group would have to constrict from 10 to 5, and I was fortunate to be one of the chosen. 

While I will spare you the exhaustive details of those endeavors, what I can tell you is that the road never got any easier with the federal funding.  For me, the last straw came this past January, when my immediate supervisor (the guy who offered me the opportunity to move up to Cambridge and was a 34-year veteran of the company) was notified that he was being let go.  After that, I just couldn’t delude myself any longer that there was anything I could do to help convince the execs that we were a group worth re-investing in.  I left Pfizer at the end of May, having somewhat serendipitously identified an awesome opportunity at a small diagnostics company in St. Louis.  While it’s attacking the problem from another side (diagnosing versus treating), I’m still getting to work in the anti-infectives space. This is a major plus for me because so few companies are still invested in this space.  I’m still relatively new at BacterioScan, but so far I’m really intrigued by how many applications our instrument could have, plus now I get to try to help ALL of my previous competitors (a.k.a. friends) by offering them a diagnostic solution that should help streamline their costs for both discovery efforts and clinical trial enrollments. 

In closing, I’m sure most of you reading this are now even more frightened by life in industry than you were on Page 1.  And while I’m no sugar-coater (Paul Dunman can attest to that), I can tell you that there were plenty of good times while at Pfizer.  You just have to be adaptable and acknowledge the fact that it can all blow up at any moment, irrespective of performance.  As you know, most major pharmaceutical companies aren’t invested in anti-infectives anymore – many went down the same path that Pfizer did, just a year or two after it happened to us.  But there’s a silver lining to all of this. With larger companies getting out, it’s created opportunities for smaller companies to emerge and take the reins.  And they are doing exactly that.  Yes, they’re smaller – so the number of available positions is reduced.  And yes, their goal is typically to advance an asset to a certain point in clinical trials, then sell it off to the big boys who can afford the more expense late-stage clinical trials.  And, sometimes, rather than in-licensing an asset, the large pharma company just swallows up the entire company instead – usually resulting in job loss for all in the acquired company.  But the scientific requirements are the same, and the job satisfaction associated with helping people and solving challenging research problems is also the same.  Budgets are tighter being in a small company, no two ways about it.  But that’s the model going forward, and its potential for success is being demonstrated all the time.

Life is hard. Circumstances are constantly changing and priorities are constantly being re-evaluated.  But if you can be flexible to that lifestyle and keep your eyes fixed on the prize, working in this field (especially if you love it the way I do) can be extraordinarily rewarding.  I may not (and likely never will) be working on a cure for Down Syndrome, but I’m pretty sure my sister’s proud of the fact that I’m trying to help a whole lot of people who don’t have a lot of advocates these days.    

Tracey Baas | 9/24/2015

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