Jobs

Embracing diversity in industry

An interview with Biogen’s Cherie Butts
Courtney Chandler
March 6, 2020

Diversity in research is important — by bringing people of different backgrounds and with different ideas to the table, we can come up with more creative solutions and answers to scientific problems and questions. This week, I spoke with Cherié Butts at Biogen about how to harness what makes each of us unique so that all perspectives are represented in industry.

Cherié Butts is the medical director and head of human biology research at Biogen.

From bench to Biogen

Butts earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry and her master’s degree in biotechnology from the Johns Hopkins University. While pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, she studied antitumor immune responses in ovarian cancer.

During her postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, she got involved with reviewing drug and biologics applications. She said she decided she wanted to better understand the basis of FDA submissions and how to decrease the time it takes for drugs to go from concept to approval, with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of effective drugs available while reducing drug prices.

She joined Biogen, based in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012. Today her title is "medical director and head of human biology research, digital and quantitative medicine."

Butts told me she has always been passionate about ensuring that individuals from all backgrounds contribute to biomedical research. She works with professional societies and other organizations to highlight the variety of career paths in government and industry, including those away from the bench or clinic. She has worked with the board for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the board for the Keystone Symposia, the board of trustees at Salem State University, the governing council for the Society of Leukocyte Biology and the Massachusetts Economic Development Planning Council. She also has been an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.

With all her experience, Butts has developed a broad view of how diversity can help industry.

Why diversity is important

Healthcare needs are constantly evolving and are incredibly diverse, and the strategies implemented to address them should reflect that. Butts' current focus is health equity with respect to clinical trials. She said that if clinical trials represent only a small proportion of those with a disease, they won’t give a clear picture of how safe or effective any given therapy is across patient populations.

“We should also be thinking about the patient experience and whether potential new therapies accommodate various lifestyles,” she said. “If they are inconvenient, it is likely patients will be noncompliant.”

This kind of thinking is better achieved when the team of researchers and clinicians behind each trial is diverse.

Being yourself in industry

Breaking into a new field can be hard and is a different experience for everyone. Butts’ advice for scientists or researchers who do not see themselves represented in industry is simple: Embrace your difference.

“As minorities, we spend far too much energy attempting to assimilate,” she said. “We should appreciate that our uniqueness makes for a more enriched environment.”

Butts said that it is good to question why things are done a certain way — it may lead to opportunities to be more efficient or effective that no one had previously thought of.

She also advised that you to maximize your “social capital and institutional credibility.” Basically, this boils down to producing high-quality work and building relationships on the basis of this work ethic.

“I have the tremendous fortune of being offered opportunities that no one who looked like me has been given,” she said. “I demonstrated success, especially with previously nonexistent activities, that afforded me additional considerations for novel activities and an openness to my ideas.”

Taking the first steps

I asked Butts about the steps any scientist can take to prepare for a career in industry, and her advice was clear: “Working in teams is the single most important element to succeeding in biopharma.”

She recommended that early-career researchers or academic researchers looking to switch into industry take on assignments in a team setting. Serving as a team member and a team leader are both important. Butts said to strive to be excellent at both.

For Butts, the difference between academic research and industry was most apparent once she became a program manager. She described the experience as eye-opening. “It required drastically different skills from typical scientific training to foster productivity among individuals who do not report directly to you,” she explained. Working with or leading teams can help build these needed skills.

She also suggested taking advantage of any courses or internships within biopharma to identify the types of roles you’re most interested in. Butts and Avery August at Cornell University developed such a program for Biogen. (August won the ASBMB's 2016 Ruth Kirchstein Diversity in Science Award.) The three-day experiential learning conference brought early-career researchers from 20 academic institutions into Biogen to learn about jobs within the drug-development process — at or away from the bench or clinic.

There is still plenty of work that needs to be done to help ensure diversity is embraced and supported in biopharma and biotech. Butts is focused on outcomes. “Decreasing morbidity and mortality across an entire population will require that we consider the needs of all individuals,” she said. “A variety of people with different backgrounds and experiences should be at the decision-making table to ensure everyone afflicted with disease is taken into consideration.”

Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and an industry careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

Featured jobs

from the ASBMB career center

Join the ASBMB Today mailing list

Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.

Latest in Careers

Careers highlights or most popular articles

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities
Announcement

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities

Aug. 1, 2021

This week: Last call for voting in ASBMB election. National Postdoctoral Association fellowship deadline. NIH Common Fund webinar on funding opportunities.

Wait, Ph.D.s are free? And other things they don’t tell you
Education

Wait, Ph.D.s are free? And other things they don’t tell you

July 30, 2021

Our academic careers columnist begins a two-part series on unspoken rules and other things students need to know but are rarely told about grad school.

Biotech industry jargon: A primer for the curious
Professional Development

Biotech industry jargon: A primer for the curious

July 29, 2021

The specific scientific and technical knowledge you need in an industry job depends on the role and will change over the course of your career. But it can help to know the basics.

Learning to love assessment
Education

Learning to love assessment

July 28, 2021

“As every scientist knows, there is no point in doing an experiment if you don’t have a way to assess the result. So assessment is a crucial step in teaching and learning.”

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities
Announcement

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities

July 25, 2021

Happening soon: Abstract deadline for ASBMB nucleolus meeting and a Lipid Research Division seminar. Just added: Webinar about NIH funding opportunities, submissions sought for pd|hub Collections and SACNAS diversity meeting.

What to ask during your faculty interview
Professional Development

What to ask during your faculty interview

July 21, 2021

“Going into your interview armed with good questions not only will help you gather intel to help you make the best decision for your career but also will help you stand above the competition.”