More than a year's worth of 5 questions

Looking back at what we asked scientists in industry and how they responded
Laurel Oldach
Dec. 24, 2021

We started the monthly Five Questions series as a way to highlight ASBMB members' diverse paths into the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and related industries. As the year draws to a close, we're looking back at the questions we asked scientists in industry and how they responded. Their answers show that there's a lot you can do with a degree in biochemistry or molecular biology that doesn't involve writing grants and lecturing to students.

They also reveal fascinating insights into the research and development that go into products we may take for granted. Members all over the world are doing interesting work at companies, such as finding biomarkers, measuring sweat cytokines and generating molecules in search of therapeutic holy grails. You can explore their work in the stories below.

Tell me about the training requirements for your job. "You get trained on the job on systems for document retention, for recording laboratory events, reporting test results, basically everything. You’re trained how to properly review a document and check for errors. Then there are annual refresher courses and retraining any time one of the procedures gets updated."

"It’s taken a lot of moves and reevaluations"

Accuracy is vital in pharmaceutical manufacturing — so much so that the reagents used to test new products must themselves be tested regularly. Donald Conover works in quality control at a Merck plant that manufactures vaccines. Read the interview.

Did having industrial funding as a postdoc help you get a foot in the door? "YDefinitely. After getting the two grants, I had more confidence and felt the work I was doing was really valuable. The funding also helped me in interviews when I applied at Takeda."

"You can survive anywhere"

After his father had a stroke, Manjunath Goolyam Basavaraj decided to study blood clotting — research with a personal connection. Read the interview.

Is there a project you're especially proud to have worked on? "There's a clear winner there: a collaboration ... that resulted in a treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia. It's a molecule that specifically targets Bcl-2, which for a long time was considered undruggable. It was an exciting project — and it's always fun to meet patients who have benefited from something that you've touched. It reminds you why we do what we do."

“You’ve got … to get outside of your comfort zone”

Wayne Fairbrother leads a department at Genentech tasked with validating disease-associated targets and determining whether they could be feasible for drug development. Read the interview.

Any advice you wish you'd gotten? "Enjoy the ride; however, know the destination. Meaning set the pace and enjoy the journey, but know exactly what you're trying to accomplish."

“Besides getting sweat on me at times, I have enjoyed the experience”

You have to know a lot about exercise physiology to make a good workout-recovery drink. PepsiCo’s Shyretha Brown uses biochemistry to understand the body’s responses. Read the interview.

What's most challenging about your work? "In forensic tests, the samples are almost unimaginable. Whatever they find at a crime scene, in whatever quantity, they want to test it: telephones, bloodspots, bodies — anything."

Giving labs the tools to be successful

Whether he’s studying genetic changes in astronauts or fine-tuning a forensic DNA test, Douglas Storts is always working to solve puzzles as the head of research in nucleic acids at Promega. Read the interview.

How did you get involved in leading research operations?"I have always found that while the science I can do by myself is fun, what's really exciting is the science that a group of people can do together."

“The pleasure of my life”

Structural biologist Melissa Starovasnik shares what she learned about leadership and decision-making as a director and vice president at Genentech. Read the interview.

What basic science questions are you working on? "The overall goal for a lot of agricultural companies right now is to bring the entire breeding cycle in vitro — to be able to do male and female pairings without ever producing an animal."

"Grad school is just the foundation"

Rebecca Krisher, global director of reproductive biology at Genus, went from developing new techniques for human in vitro fertilization to research in animal breeding. Read the interview.

What do you do at Addgene? "I'm part of the viral vector team; we produce readymade virus aliquots to make it easier for researchers."

"I could be happy doing other things"

Forensic investigations, IVF embryology, custom virus production for research: Alanna Mitsopoulos has done it all. She describes her career path so far. Read the interview.

What made you want to work at a startup? "A confluence of factors and being in the right place at the right time. I’m happy I made the choice to join a startup. ... Unfortunately, only one in 10 postdocs get a chance for an equitable share of the academic research pie."

"Very, very luckily for me, this project is going well"

Glycobiologist Vijayakanth Pagadala wasn’t looking for a career in biotechnology, but he’s glad to have found one. Read the interview.

Do you often simultaneously develop a test and a therapy? "That’s the ideal path for a companion diagnostic. Ideally, when you take a drug into a first-in-human study, you have an idea of the biomarker you’d like to translate into a diagnostic and a guess about how much of it you need in someone’s serum for them to respond properly to a drug."

"Your diagnostic is only as good as what you understand about a disease"

Renee Yura has been busy supporting Pfizer’s COVID-19 response. She took a break to tell us about the world of diagnostics development and how she landed there. Read the interview.

Do you feel there’s an optimal company size? "I really liked a small to midsize company, big enough that they could fund their projects but not so big that there was a gap between the people running the company and the research divisions."

A turbulent industry

Paul Wright, a chemist whose 28-year career in the pharmaceutical industry spanned many types of roles and companies, shares what he learned along the way with ASBMB Today. Read the interview.

What traits do you look for in a potential employee? "Is a person willing to contribute under conditions that may be changing? Because there’s no guarantee that what we’re doing today will be of interest three months from now."

"Your diagnostic is only as good as what you understand about a disease"

Mark Harpel works in a research unit at GlaxoSmithKline that helps choose the most promising targets for new drug development. Read the interview.

What skills do you need in your current role that you didn’t learn in graduate school? "Dealing with people. As a student, you’re used to looking at data and being at the bench for hours; if you don’t want to, you don’t have to interact with very many people … outside of collaborations."

On managing and mentoring

“Everybody’s career trajectory is different, and there's no one way to do it,” says Jenna Hendershot, whose last-minute internship in grad school turned her from academic bench work to industry. Read the interview.

How important has networking been for your career?"Everything has come through relationships I’ve built in the field. I went to do a postdoc in Denmark because of an academic collaboration during my Ph.D. I ended up at Catalyst the first time because, from my academic work, I knew the chief science officer."

On managing and mentoring

Grant Blouse, senior vice president of translational research at Catalyst Biosciences, offers career advice from his experience in both a big pharmaceutical company and a smaller biotech outfit. Read the interview.

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Laurel Oldach

Laurel Oldach is a former science writer for the ASBMB.

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