Drug Hunting and Expanding Your Breadth with Dr. Karen Akinsanya

By Rebecca Manubag

On April 5, 2021, Rutgers iJOBS and the The Erdos Institute hosted an informative seminar with featured guest, Dr. Karen Akinsanya, who discussed her work in industry. Dr. Akinsanya spoke about her journey from her graduate studies to multiple positions that expanded her “breadth and depth” (as she put it) during her transition to translational science in industry. She also touched on the importance of collaboration in the field of drug discovery and gave some career tips for young scientists interested in this field.

Dr. Karen Akinsanya hails from the U.K., where she completed her doctoral and post-doctoral work, the latter exposing her to the pharmaceutical industry at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. She joined Ferring Pharmaceuticals following her postdoc, and discussed her experience collecting clinical samples to use in the lab. This highlights a very literal example of “bench to bedside,” a term often synonymous with translational science. Over the next few years, Dr. Akinsanya continued her work at Ferring as a Senior Scientist working closely with the clinic, and even suggested the incorporation of human genetics experiments to the head of R&D at Ferring (likely influenced by the success of the Human Genome Project). An overarching question in her career seemed to be What tools are needed within drug discovery to better impact the clinic? With this in mind, Dr. Akinsanya made a 180-pivot into the world of clinical pharmacology, which eventually led her to join Merck for over a decade. She moved across many divisions during her time there, starting in the clinical department and eventually making her way to business development and licensing, proving that silo barriers can be broken with a PhD.

But what is it exactly that allowed Dr. Akinsanya to move across all of these areas so confidently? Aside from her innate determination, she was driven simply by the question of what makes a good molecule? Time and time again, she and many other researchers in her field have seen the identification of compounds that look promising in preclinical studies only to fail in the clinic.

To that end, Dr. Akinsanya next elaborated on a few reasons why drugs fail. The top reasons mentioned were molecular target validation and relevance to human disease. Even after decades of medical and laboratory innovations, one must humbly acknowledge that we still don’t know everything about the human body. This may lead to money being spent on a potential drug lead that may not even be relevant to begin with. Additionally, the current drug discovery pipeline involves roughly 5,000-10,000 compounds and up to two decades to develop a single drug from scratch. With these obstacles looming in the background, collaboration has emerged as a cornerstone of the field of drug discovery and development. An example of this is when a group is characterizing a new “hit” compound in the lab, only to find that another lab across the globe had the same idea! It’s these instances where collaboration can lead to a breakthrough, which Dr. Akinsanya speaks about in her experience working with DPPIV-related proteins.

So, what makes a drug successful? The “5R Framework” from AstraZeneca was referenced to outline the general requirements for a successful drug. A drug has to have: 1. the Right target, 2. the Right tissue, 3. the Right safety, 4. the Right patient, and 5. the Right commercial potential. Unfortunately, the majority of drugs do not fulfill all of these criteria and finding a balance has proven to be quite the feat. This further emphasizes the importance of collaboration in pharma and drug discovery, since it involves risk, value, and investment. You need early clinical trials, money for funding, and maybe most importantly, partnering to incorporate ideas from many groups. 

The “5R” Framework, AstraZeneca

Image reference: Morgan, P., Brown, D., Lennard, S. et al. Impact of a five-dimensional framework on R&D productivity at AstraZeneca. Nat Rev Drug Discov 17, 167–181 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrd.2017.244

Dr. Akinsanya next expounded on her current work in drug discovery and translational science. For Dr. Akinsanya, her career in drug discovery has profoundly involved genomics and more recently, computational techniques. Her current work at Schrödinger focuses on the use of a computation-based approach to accelerate drug discovery. She emphasized the use of physics-based computational assays that help to model the free energy of protein binding, which can help speed up identification of useful compounds.

The use of computation and “-Omics” mapping may also be the tool needed to improve medical research. Between 2018 and 2020, the biotech industry has exceeded the number of FDA approvals for big pharma, with this generated data playing a huge part. We’ve had the first siRNA drug approved, advances in gene therapy, and the Covid-19 vaccine developed in less than a year (thanks to collaboration). Computational models can also produce real-time data from the patient population, a method that can help scale up disease-relevant information.  Concluding her talk, Dr. Akinsanya also mentioned what she believed to be a promising new field of -omics in drug identification and compound screening. She referred to this as the “Pocketome,” which focuses on atomic level structures.

Dr. Akisanya’s story comes with many takeaways and she offered multiple tips for early career scientists looking to switch to industry or pharma. The first is to be proactive more than reactive. If you believe in something, make it known to your higher-ups! The second is to take calculated risks and consider the input of those with the experience you wish to seek. She also stressed the importance of finding supportive mentors in every career phase. The third tip is to identify scientific problems, but also to propose thoughtful solutions. The fourth tip is to avoid the silo effect (which can be demonstrated through her own career changes), meaning balance the breadth and depth in your career to become more interdisciplinary. Specifically, for drug discovery, this proves to be vital for the means of collaboration. Finally, she stressed the ability to respond to change in a field that is everchanging. As for making the jump from academia to industry, it may be helpful to start by seeking out smaller biotech companies to experience an industry environment.

Overall, Dr. Akinsanya managed to address multiple topics that apply to understanding her field, as well as to navigating challenges in a scientific career, in general. She used personal experiences to stress the importance of mentorship (noting multiple mentors she gained throughout her career), thinking outside the box (and making your thoughts known, like she did at Ferring), as well as keeping the common goal at the forefront of scientific decisions (in the case of drug discovery, how can more drugs be developed?). These are all takeaways that can apply to all stages of a scientific career.

This article was edited by Junior Editor, Zachary Fritz and Senior Editor, Brianna Alexander.

Life as an industry scientist at a biotech company

By: Sally Wang

One of the most common questions that newly minted PhDs ask when considering non-academic jobs is about the transferability of their skills and knowledge. Given that most PhDs only know one type of research environment, any non-academic venture would appear to be a large departure from the research ecosystem that they are acclimatized to during graduate school. However, those looking to transition into the biotech sector may be pleasantly surprised at how much their skills and knowledge are transferable.

At this iJOBS event, Eduardo Perez PhD, a 2006 Rutgers grad in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, shared his experiences working for a small biotech company. Perez started at Signum Biosciences as a postdoctoral research scientist on a fellowship sponsored by the NJ Commission on Science and Technology and has worked for the company for 14 years and counting. Over the years, he has ascended the career ladder and is now serving as the company’s chief scientific officer (CSO). Perez described small biotech companies such as Signum as “an organized chaos” and that working for them comes with a lot of room for innovation and ability to make an impact on the company’s scientific mission. According to Perez, industry scientists who work for a biotech company typically have three types of job responsibilities in support of the company’s overarching mission.

First, scientists play a role in the company’s business development where they work with the CFO/CEO on strategic initiatives and pitch science to interested companies or investors. They also take part in endeavors such as attending conferences to network and dealing with technology commercialization. Much like exploring funding opportunities and pitching ideas to program officers at grant-funding agencies, this aspect of the industry scientist position is very much about strategically mapping out research aims and garnering interest from potential funders — something that academic scientists are well-versed in. Even technology commercialization is not something far removed from academic research, so much so that many research institutions including Rutgers have an office of technology transfer that facilitates such initiatives. As such, PhDs can be certain that their training in graduate school and postdoc will prepare them well to wear this hat as an industry scientist. 

Second, scientists working in biotech contribute to the research and development (R & D) operation of the company. Here, typical duties include performing data analysis, project prioritization, budget allocation, and serving as the point person with collaborators and consultants. These duties are well within the comfort zones of PhD grads and engages similar skillsets that have been honed throughout graduate school and postdoctoral training. Although academic and industry research often diverge in their research objectives, PhDs should not have much problem adapting their lab expertise in academia to pursue more industry-oriented projects. 

Third, scientists at a biotech company are involved in medical writing and marketing. The writing aspect comprises tasks such as writing grants and drafting manuscript for peer review whereas the marketing aspect involves making presentations for non-scientists, managing website contents and social media presence. This is another aspect of the industry scientist’s job that a transitioning academic PhD will feel right at home with. Particularly in recent years, academia itself has seen a surge in social media presence where a lot of academics including graduate students maintain an active online profile whether it is via lab or personal websites or Twitter. As such, PhDs transitioning into industry should be no stranger to the world of industry marketing whose goal is to engage the public on the latest scientific advancements.

A small biotech company offers the big-fish-in-a-small-pond environment whereas a big pharma company offers the small-fish-in-a-big-pond environment—something that PhDs looking to enter the biotech sector should consider.

In addition to sharing the types of work that an industry scientist does at a biotech company, Perez also shared his views on how small biotech companies compare to large pharmaceutical companies. According to Perez, while large pharmaceutical firms offer more job security that is coupled to a tried-and-true and structured work environment, small biotech companies could provide more job satisfaction that allows the scientist to be more directly involved in planning and implementing the company’s big-picture goals. In other words, a small biotech company offers the big-fish-in-a-small-pond environment whereas a big pharma company offers the small-fish-in-a-big-pond environment—something that PhDs looking to enter the biotech sector should consider.

As you peel away all the industry jargon of CDAs (confidential disclosure agreements) and MTAs (material transfer agreements), the role of an industry scientist at a biotech company is perhaps more similar than different to that of an academic scientist. Whether science is conducted in an academic or industry environment, the ultimate goal is one and the same: leveraging scientific research to solve a problem. What differs will be the application of the solution—where industry tends to be more product-driven whereas academia is more knowledge-driven. However, what is important to take away is that an academically trained scientist has the skills and toolset to successfully transition into the biotech industry.

This article was edited by Junior Editor Gina Sanchez and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.

Working at a CRO: a welcoming environment for PhD holders

By Helena Mello

Before we begin, I need to make a distinction: “CRO” can refer to two related, but different, companies. It can refer to a Clinical Research Organization or a Contract Research Organization. Broadly, both companies may be considered Contract organizations because they work under a contract to provide service in the form of research services. However, the term Clinical means the company specializes in running and supporting clinical studies, whereas Contract organizations mostly support their clients with pre-clinical (including in-vitro and in-silico work) studies. Not only are their acronyms the same, but their high regard for STEM graduates as well. As a PhD, you can thrive in either setting. On December 7th, the iJOBS program hosted five speakers to share how they have transitioned into both types of CROs.

Srilatha Simhadri, PhD, is a Rutgers alumna. She is currently a Scientist at WuXi AppTec, a Contract Research Organization, working at the in-vitro Biology Department. At WuXi AppTec she is in charge of running in-vitro screening of potential new compounds on behalf of their clients, and needs to know how to operate all of the machines in the laboratory. Dr. Simhadri described her work environment/team as “a tight and extremely cooperative group,” and stated that everyone from technical scientists to VPs interacts with the clients. Dr. Simhadri has had much experience in CRO positions. For example, she had already held positions in CROs between her Master’s and PhD programs. After her PhD training, she transitioned from a postdoctoral position at Rutgers into another CRO, before starting at WuXi AppTec. To that end, she highlighted that CROs offer “many opportunities to work on different things,” which was an attracting feature that made her transition back into the field.

Gabriele Vincelli, PhD, Senior Scientist at Evotec, was also a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers before starting at his current company. Evotec is also a Contract Research Organization, providing similar services as WuXi AppTec. Dr. Vincelli’s experience as a postdoc, particularly in lentiviral-based protein expression, made him the perfect candidate for the job. Besides the technical expertise, Dr. Vincelli is expected to strongly interact with clients and meet their needs with the highest standard, which involves “heavy communication and lots of troubleshooting.” This requires him to stay up-to-date on the most innovative, cutting-edge techniques. He describes his position as “a job that never get boring.”

Xiaotang (Jessica) Ma, PhD, former NJIT graduate student, is currently a Clinical Pharmacology Scientist at Frontage Laboratories, a Contract Research Organization that also offers Clinical Trials Management services. In her position, she uses Machine Learning to assess the tolerability and safety of drugs for new studies. She described her work environment as “very PhD friendly” and, especially in her position, a place to get exposed to several therapeutic areas. Dr. Ma started applying for jobs and internships during her 3rd year of PhD training, which led her to explore many paths outside of academia. When graduation came, Dr. Ma had a few options on the table. To that end, she emphasized the need for tailored resumes for each position she applied for, and the importance of speaking to people in the prospective industry – both of which helped her approach the interviews with a clearer view of what the job would entail, and helped her to make a decision between a few offers.

Miguel Cabrera, PhD, from Target Health, was representing a Clinical Research Organization. He emphasized the role the iJOBS program has played in his career: Dr. Cabrera got his current job through an iJOBS event. He connected with a speaker who introduced him to the CEO of the company he now works for. As Clinical Project Manager at Target Health, Dr. Cabrera oversees clinical studies on behalf of sponsors (companies that own the treatment being tested). His daily activities include searching for qualified sites and negotiating budgets. Although a PhD isn’t required for the role, he said that the skills acquired during his graduate training, such as time and project management, have helped him on the job.

The faster, more adaptable pace of CROs allows them to perform “research-on-demand” and produce meaningful results in less time.

Andrew Napper, PhD, Vice-President for Discovery Sciences at Evotec, brought interesting perspectives that applied to both types of CROs. Dr. Napper has been working in drug discovery for over 30 years, and has held a number of positions both in academia and in industry. He has seen the industry change and called our attention to “pharma’s risk aversion”: when companies shift their efforts towards regulatory, legal, and marketing departments, and outsource the high-risk R&D portion to CROs. The faster, more adaptable pace of CROs allows them to perform “research-on-demand” and produce meaningful results in less time.

Finally, all panelists echoed the importance of networking,regardless of the career path you follow. We have written many iJOBS blog posts that can help you build these connections, such as Networking Etiquette: Tips to Successfully Build a Network and “Informational Interviews – What? How? Why?”. After hearing from these panelists, it was clear that either Contract or Clinical Research Organizations are interesting and welcoming places for PhD holders. Whether you wish to get exposed to new therapeutic areas in a short amount of time, work with cutting-edge techniques, or transition into clinical studies, these companies could be the right fit for you.

I hope this and other posts help you to explore career paths that you may not have thought of exploring. If you have any questions, feel free to connect with us on twitter. Happy Holidays and we will see you in 2021!

This article was edited by Senior Editor Brianna Alexander.

Career Panel: Women in Academic Biology

Career Panel: Women in Academic Biology

By Natalie Losada and Samantha Avina

April 28th 2020 iJobs Women in Academic biology Virtual Panelists (from left to right Janet Alder, Lauren Aleksunes, Maribel Vazquez, Cheryl Dreyfus, Trancy Anthony, Sam Yadavalli) and reporting iJobs student bloggers (top and bottom of middle column Samantha Avina and Natalie Losada).
April 28th 2020 iJobs Women in Academic biology Virtual Panelists (from left to right Janet Alder, Lauren Aleksunes, Maribel Vazquez, Cheryl Bouncy Castle Dreyfus, Trancy Anthony, Sam Yadavalli) and reporting iJobs student bloggers (top and bottom of middle column Samantha Avina and Natalie Losada).

Thanks to the efforts of many strong and dedicated advocates, tremendous progress has been made for women’s rights since the late 1800’s.  However, even in the 21st century with the freedom and resources available to reach their full potential, women in science still feel they need to choose between the excitement of research and the fulfilling experience of having a family.  On April 28th, 2020, the Rutgers iJOBS program hosted the Women in Academic Biology Virtual Panel, where women at different stages in their academic careers shared their career progressions and experiences in academia. This piece provides some assurance and advice from five strong women in academic biology who reject the false choice between family and career and demonstrate that you can have it all!

One of the topics discussed focused on how panelists decided to go into academia vs other career options. Dr. Tracy Anthony, a Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University, described how her joy of learning aided in her decision to pursue a career in academia. “I loved learning and continued to invest in myself by finishing my higher education and pursuing post-doctoral work. Also participating in different internship opportunities gives you the chance to decide what you are comfortable with in academic vs industry settings”, said Dr. Anthony. Other panelists discussed how they appreciated being treated as equals in their field with respect to being responsible for their own successes and tribulations, regardless of gender. Although in academia, the professors advised that you have to have tough skin to play ball as your success is dependent on being able to take tough criticism and move on. “You have to be able to deal with your failures. Every failure is a stepping-stone toward your success, and you have to learn how to build yourself up or you will not succeed. Many have left because they couldn’t take the heat”, said Dr. Maribel Vazquez, a current Rutgers Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.  An advantage of academia discussed was the straightforward path towards professorship when compared to a career in industry. While your role and position may be changing in industry constantly as company demands fluctuate, the path for career advancement in academia is clear; starting out as an associate professor working through the ranks to eventually attain full tenured professorship. Although, that’s not to say career elevation in academia is easy. Working towards tenured professorship does not only revolve around a professor’s research accolades, but their involvement in the academic community including  committee appointments, joint grant projects, and mentoring responsibilities.  Another advantage of academia, especially for women interested in having children, is overseeing your own schedule and being your own boss while managing family and career life. A common theme amongst the panelists that proved to be most important in pursuing an academic career was having a strong support system and mentorship. Academia and industry are completely different career paths with different advantages and steps needed to successfully propel forward. However, as the field transforms to be more inclusive and promote equal gender opportunities, women have begun to make a strong foothold for themselves in the field of academia that continues to grow.

In virtual breakout sessions via Zoom, each panelist was able to participate in discussions with attendees in smaller groups and answer more specific questions. One question posed by students was how the importance of a support system and mentorship helped them decide to pursue a career in academia. “You can find support in all aspects of your life including mentors in your field and people who believe in you…It’s important you listen not only to the criticism but also to the positive comments on things that you are good at”, said Dr. Anthony during the breakout sessions.  There will be a time in your scientific career when you doubt yourself and experience imposter syndrome. Even when you are fully trained and capable, you’ll need colleagues, mentors, friends, and partners to offer support and remind you of your abilities.  Dr. Samhita Yadavalli, who is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, explained that it is also important to have a good support system amongst your peers, in an effort to “Exchange ideas and learn from each other”.  As an academic, you should surround yourself with peers and colleagues that will support you intellectually and encourage you to solve problems in new ways.  You should also have the support of your friends and partners. Dr. Cheryl Dreyfus, the current chair of Neuroscience and Cell Biology at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, emphasized that having a supportive partner was a major part of her success. While a Ph.D. student, she was one of 10 women in a class of 100 biomedical science students.  She felt lost because she had “no female role model” pursuing both a science career and a family.  But she was able to confidently pursue her career with a supportive husband who believed in her.

 “A mark of success is that you surround yourself with people who support you and that you have the partners who truly believe in you”.  – Dr. Cheryl Dreyfus

Finally, on a broader scale, your support system should include a network of people in your current or desired career field who advocate for you.  Dr. Lauren Aleksunes, a Rutgers Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology, explained that the small interactions you have with professionals and people you admire make a huge difference.  Going to conferences and speaking to them even briefly can create the valuable connections you will need to join new labs, companies, research projects, or collaborations.  A small interaction combined with a follow up message on LinkedIn can make quite an impactful impression!

For introverts, Dr. Samhita Yadavalli advises to “have a friend or colleague introduce you to someone you want to connect with so it breaks the ice.”

However, even if you have a support system, how do you maintain a good work and home life balance? Dr. Cheryl Dreyfus chimed in, “I need to be as flexible as I can, be open to new ideas, and not say no automatically and have an open mind. That has helped me in my scientific and personal mindset of going forward”. Dr. Samhita Yadavalli also emphasized how support at home can help you manage your home and work life balance. She currently has a 15-month-old daughter and described how having a partner supportive of your aspirations is critical in maintaining a great dynamic for life/work balance. Dr. Maribel Vazquez explained how she blocks out time specifically for her family. She says once she is home from work, her students know she is not answering her emails or phone because that time is reserved for her family. Dr. Vazquez also conveyed it is important for partners to understand that work/life balance as well. Collectively, the panelists agreed that having a partner on the same page about your career path is absolutely necessary to make both the academic and home aspects of your life coexist peacefully.

The final issue all the panelists addressed was whether they see or have seen any gender biases in their careers.  Dr. Maribel Vazquez in particular experienced biases at multiple stages in her career as a biomedical engineer.  As an undergraduate she experienced gender bias from her peers who would tell her, “You’ll get a job because you’re a girl, companies all want to hire girls”.  She experienced a gender bias in graduate school when teaching assistants would give female students points on incorrect answers because they’re girls and “they tried hard”.  Interestingly, her experience in industry was more regulated through legal obligations, so Dr. Vazquez’s male counterparts treated her equally during their communication and did not receive credit for “trying”.  After transitioning back into academia, she encountered gender bias again at the faculty level.  In each department, research professors are assigned to positions in a variety of committees.  Dr. Vazquez noticed women were given stereotypical “mom” positions in committees for event planning, while the men were given research relevant positions, for example, in the health and safety committee. As you might guess, this doesn’t boost the women’s CVs and Dr. Vazquez urged people to “call it out when we see it” so gender biases do not perpetuate.

Dr. Tracy Anthony summed up the gender bias topic very well by adding “We need more togetherness” and “We need to look out for each other”.  She explained that the current feminist movement seems to promote the idea “as women we have to behave like men”, but she argues that this is the opposite of what needs to be done.  She advises women to “make sure that when we feel bad about how we are treated, we don’t repeat that with other women”. When dealing with gender bias, it is just as important for women to support each other as it is to establish the support system of colleagues, mentors, and partners as the panelists addressed earlier.  The professors fantastically balanced their advice with empowering messages and brought ease to the attendees who aspired to have their family and academic careers.

The iJOBS Women in Academia Career Panel assured female students that academic professions are worth working toward and attainable with grit, hard work and stellar time management.  It’s incredulous to think there was once a time when women were banned from learning science or when they made monumental discoveries, their achievements did not receive credit until years later, or not at all. There is still a lot of progress to be made promoting women in STEM fields, but nevertheless, this iJOBS event revealed to all aspiring female scientists that a career in academia is attainable, rewarding and worth the work if you are a passionate discoverer.

“We need to advocate for other women”.  – Dr. Tracy Anthony


Junior Editor: Rukia Henry

Senior Editor: Tomas Kasza

Medical Communication and Science Writing Virtual Career Panel

By: Gina Sanchez

On March 31st, the iJobs program hosted a career panel in Medical Writing and Science Communication. In this program, we were able to hear from three Rutgers Ph.D. graduates and one more individual at various stages of their careers. Attendees were able to get the points of view of the panelists regarding how they learned about Medical Writing, what Chateau Gonflable their job activities include, the application process, and their favorite aspects of the field.

A common thread between the panelists was that they had “enjoyed the benchwork, but enjoyed writing it up and communicating it to others more,” as stated by Dr. Ina Nikolaeva, Scientific Director at ProEd Communications. Benchwork is the crux of research for many of us, but it is still critical that any findings are communicated in a way that others who may not be in our field can understand. On another note, Dr. Brendon Fussnecker, Senior Director of Flywheel Partners, had a bit of a unique take on the question of “why Medical Communications?”. For him, he had mentioned that he values the business side of things. He echoed some sentiments from the “SciPh.D.” workshop (which you can learn more about here and here), such as being able to target your pitch to different people within departments, namely talking to Human Resources versus talking to Account Management. The ability to know and understand your audience is vital.

So, what is Medical Writing? The specific day-to-day activities of each panelist varied, but they focused on a common thread: taking datasets and interpreting them to present to a broader audience. Dr. Apoorva Halikere, Associate Medical Director from P-value Communications, gave a brief overview of her general day. In essence, she receives datasets from clients and determines the best way to compile the data for presentation purposes, makes slide decks, and makes promotional pieces for her clients. These materials can be for primary care physicians, specialty physicians, or sometimes for patients. Being able to communicate across diverse audiences is a significant skill to have in this field. Some other responsibilities that she mentioned included assisting in the organization of advisory board meetings, which brings together specialists for their thoughts on the compound that they are working on with a client.

Typical breakdown of time in Medcomms. https://medcomms.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/kapoor_01.png?w=450

The work-life balances for each panelist were a bit different, but all seemed to agree that it was manageable. Dr. Nikolaeva mentioned that it is a learning process and could depend on the work culture of each company. Therefore, Dr. Fussnecker stated that it can be a tricky question, but it is valid to ask what is the company’s work culture while you are in the application process. Everyone has a different preference and works better under different environments, so it is important to factor this into your decision as an applicant.  Dr. Halikere also mentioned that it is possible to work remotely. This may not be an everyday thing (unless during a pandemic). Still, if you show that you are capable of being productive at home and you also have a good relationship with your boss, it is something that can be negotiated.

The major benefit of having such a diverse panel is that we were able to learn about the application process from many different angles, anywhere from someone newly-hired to someone at late career stage. Dr. Lorenz Loyola, Rutgers alumnus of 2019 currently working as a Medical Writer for Wedgewood Communications, was able to give us insight into what we likely will experience in a few short months or years. He mentioned that it can be tricky to apply for an entry-level position as it is competitive and that there are times of the year that it will be “easier” to apply for a job as cycles clients are off-loaded. He attended iJobs events and ultimately used LinkedIn to help him find his current job. The process included meeting with many people within the company, then performing a writing test. He said that their “goal is to check your potential to be trained to become a good medical writer for their company.” Dr. Fussnecker felt that being in a program like iJobs would look very good on an application because it shows that you have had exposure to many different career options and likely have established a network that could assist you in this career path. Furthermore, experience in all types of writing is recommended by him.

Medical Writing is a unique field, and experience writing primary research articles, review articles, a blog, or even your cover letter shows him that you are flexible in your writing skills, which is a major perk in this field. He also noted that it is important to show that you can work on a team. Many companies divide their employees into smaller groups that each tackle a different client project, so being able to work in a team is essential. Dr. Nikolaeva described the diverse types of writing tests that she has heard of or personally experienced. You may have one week to write a lengthy piece, one day to write an abstract, or summarize data in 2-3 hours. What they are looking for is potential, not perfection. You are expected to produce a detail-oriented, polished piece with proper grammar, flow, and structure that tells a story. She also went on to note that there is “not a lot of room for ego in this field,” as this is a client-based field. You are commonly put in the acknowledgments section of any papers produced, but not a primary author. That being said, you have some room to argue your points with clients, but it is ultimately not your piece.

Helpful skills to have. http://www.impactpharma.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/skills.jpg

One of the final topics discussed at this panel was the panelists’ favorite aspects of being a Medical Writer. Dr. Fussnecker enjoys what many people outside of the field would dislike. He loves how dynamic the job is. As a Medical Writer, you are constantly changing fields and expanding your knowledge base. He also really enjoys the problem-solving aspect of the writing process. Dr. Nikolaeva personally enjoys communicating with the clinicians, as they are the ones on the front lines battling the disease that you are working with and producing materials for.

This panel was very insightful and allowed us an up-close view of an emerging field that had seemed so elusive in the past. MedComm is an expanding field that Ph.D.s are highly-qualified for. In this career, you work with the skills you learned while earning your doctoral degree in order to produce pieces that will ultimately help to communicate the findings of one group to a broader audience. This career path will always challenge you to learn new subjects, and I feel that that is one of the most valuable outcomes of being a scientist.


Junior Editor: Janaina Pereira

Senior Editor: Helena Mello

What can you be with a PhD? A Science and Technology Career Symposium: Part 1

by Rukia Henry

What can you be with a PhD (WCUB) is a career symposium that is held biennially. It is supported by the New York Regional Consortium of Schools, in association with Nature Careers. The two-day event is held to facilitate panels of professionals that can engage in active discussions around traditional and alternative careers that students can pursue with a PhD degree. The panel discussions ranged in varying topics and had professional representatives from organizations in business, government, academia, and the public and private sector. This is the first post in a four-part series that will cover the sessions that I attended at the two-day symposium.


Day One, Part 1: Careers in Bioinformatics and Genomics

The panellists for this session included Dr Issac Galatzer-Levy, VP of Clinical and Computational Neuroscience at AiCure, Dr Zachary Kurtz, Scientist at Lodo Therapeutics and Dr Jonathan Scheiman, Co-Founder and CEO of FitBiomics. The moderator of the panel was Dr Jim Hayes, Field Application Scientist, and Clinical Bioinformatics at QIAGEN.

There is a genomics revolution occurring in our present generation that has taken off extraordinarily. We are now able to generate and analyze unprecedented amounts of data in diverse fields of science and research within a short period of time. This has given us the ability to progress, especially in the biomedical field, by sorting, processing, and analyzing huge data sets of patient information, which has helped us to tailor targeted and precise medical treatments. The fields of genomics and bioinformatics have become closely related to each other, and with this new technological tool, scientists are now readily able to transform genomic information that will move the medical field forward.

Scientists and graduate students in training can benefit immensely from the opportunities that the computational and bioinformatics field has to offer. Especially students who mainly conduct research in a laboratory setting where chemical and biological matter is processed, the ability to transform the data produced and make meaningful connections with consortiums of similar data is made possible with bioinformatics.

Is a Post-Doctoral Appointment Necessary for a Career in Bioinformatics?

The panellists discussed ways in which they were able to transition from a wet lab to bioinformatics and computational positions.

In order to facilitate the transition into the bioinformatics job market, the importance of obtaining post-doctoral training was discussed. Two of the panellists, Dr Issac Galatzer-Levy and Dr Jonathan Scheiman, both held post-doctoral appointments. Dr Galatzer-Levy first went into academia, and in addition to his position at AiCure, he currently holds an adjunct professorship at Columbia University in the Department of Psychiatry. He noted that at the time of obtaining his Ph.D., he initially did not consider a career in bioinformatics or computational biology. However, it soon became clear the plethora of benefits and advantages the emerging field has to offer.

Dr Scheiman, however, noted that he obtained his postdoctoral degree more recently than Dr Isaac and while in his appointment, he likewise saw the great benefit of this tool and decided to co-found FitBiomics. FitBiomics is a biotech company that utilizes next-generation sequencing to analyze the microbiome of athletes to identify, analyze and isolate novel populations of bacteria that can be transformed into probiotic supplements. Dr Scheiman obtained his PhD in the field of medical oncology. Both Dr Scheiman and Dr Issac received PhD training in the natural and medical sciences and were both able to successfully transition into careers in Bioinformatics and Genomics.

The consensus among the panellists is that, while a postdoctoral appointment is deemed important for a career in academia, you can increase your skills in biology or genetics, thereby setting yourself up to be proficient and an expert in your research field. Besides, you can go into a postdoctoral appointment with the interest to start your own company, and you will have the opportunity to develop, optimize and license a technique that you can later transform and be of relevance in the field of Bioinformatics and Genomics. Mainly, what you develop as a post-doc can be used to build and develop a company of your own, or translate that into the bioinformatics sphere instead of starting your own lab, an advantage Dr Scheiman saw and employed.

Dr Kurtz was the only panellist who did not complete postdoctoral training, having completed a PhD in Microbiology and Systems Biology and NYU School of Medicine. Part of his graduate school training, however, involved computational analysis of the gut microbiome.

Nonetheless, one disadvantage that not completing a postdoc appointment may pose is the level that you enter the job market. Candidates with just a PhD degree usually end up with entry-level positions, while the ones who have completed a post-doctoral training may be propelled to a level 2 scientist in a company.

Getting a Job in the Genomics and Bioinformatics Market

As discussed above, while postdoctoral training may be more beneficial for a career in academia, you can use this time of training as an opportunity to increase your skills in molecular biology as well and gain more experience in computational biology. Having a background in bioinformatics can most definitely make you more competitive and marketable.

To gain such experience, you can begin by learning how to use and be proficient in R and Python programming languages. According to Dr Scheiman, “you should know enough to be dangerous.” In addition, it is important that while learning these languages, you gain the valuable skill in being proficient in analyzing large data sets. You should be able to build a model where data can be continuously translational to the real world. And how can you accomplish that? Most of the panellists advised taking advantage of training videos on YouTube and free content on the World Wide Web.

Dr Kurtz recommended that graduate students should also consider learning how to perform cloud computing and sign up for Amazon Web Service, a platform that trains you on computing and managing massive databases online and in the cloud.

Handling Imposter Syndrome in the Bioinformatics World

Most of the panellists were trained in ‘wet lab’ and had degrees that are not in Bioinformatics or Computational Genomics. One topic discussed was dealing with imposter syndrome as you navigate a field where you did not earn professional training. The resounding advice that all the panellists shared was that “everyone  is making it up as they go.” It is crucial that you become well versed and trained in your area of expertise, and with your valuable training and knowledge, you are actually at an advantage. It is important also to know that you learn something new every day, and no one knows everything.

Being trained as a scientist in an academic setting may help you to develop valuable skills that may prove useful in non-academic working environments.  Most scientists are trained to be critical thinkers, and you become well versed in making and executing plans. While most experts in the bioinformatics world may only know what is in their world, you bring the perspective of being able to be a liaison between the service being built and offered, and the customers and target audience the service is provided to. According to Dr Galatzer-Levy, never let the IT team try to speak with the customers.

This post was edited by Janaina Pereira and Helena Mello.

FDA’s role in expediting the development of novel medical products

By Huri Mücahit


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as the name suggests, is the primary regulatory organization for food and drug safety, including biologics and medical devices. However, surprisingly, the FDA regulates much more in the name of protecting public health, such as cosmetics, veterinary products, and tobacco products. The range in regulatory jurisdiction speaks to the long history of food and drug regulation that came about in response to the highly unregulated nature of medicine production in the early 1900’s, resulting in the death of 22 children due to contaminated vaccines. Since then, several laws have been passed requiring the licensing and inspection of food and drug manufacturers, as well as mandating the demonstration of not only safety, but also efficacy of a drug. Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., Director for Biologics and Research Evaluation, discussed the FDA’s history and approval process in this iJOBS seminar.


Of particular interest to Ph.D. students in the health sciences, is the FDA’s role in promoting the development of products that address the public’s unmet medical needs. The agency addresses these needs through several factors, such as extracting user fees for each application examined, so that performance metrics can be placed on the FDA to ensure timely review. In addition, to further facilitate drug and biologics development, sponsors of the applications, which are typically pharmaceutical companies, can ask for OrphanDesignation, apply for Priority Review vouchers, or apply through any of the expedited development programs. As the first category suggests, the Orphan Designation covers treatments for rare diseases affecting less than 200,000 people, and it features tax credits, 7 years of market exclusivity, and user fee exemption. Priority Review vouchers can be applied for neglected diseases of the tropics, rare pediatric diseases, and for medical countermeasures. This option ensures the review process will be completed within 6 months rather than the standard 10, however, the sponsors must demonstrate significant improvement in safety or effectiveness. Additional programs targeting treatments for serious conditions, like Fast Track, Accelerated Approval, or Breakthrough Therapy, may offer advantages such asrolling reviews in which the committee will review components of the application as they are prepared, approval based on surrogate endpoints, or extensive guidance from the review committee. Finally, sponsors can also be granted the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy Designation (RMAT), if they provide cell therapies, tissue engineering products, or human cell and tissue products.


While the FDA has many paths to approval for new treatment applications, the agency naturally follows a standard process to ensure safety and efficacy of the treatment. This might include an initial information meeting between the FDA and the sponsor to go over the application procedure and provide guidance on the types of studies required prior to clinical trials. If the results look promising once the necessary pre-clinical trials are conducted, a manufacturing process will be developed, keeping with Good Manufacturing Practices. A second meeting might then be scheduled to propose Phase I trials and protocols, which, if approved, will be used to generate data for further review. Upon proving that the treatment has the potential to address an unmet need, the FDA will assign a specific designation, such as RMAT or Fast Track, and review the additional data produced from Phase II and III trials, as well, as manufacturing protocols. Finally, after a series of informal, mid-cycle, and late-cycle meetings, an advisory committee consisting of experts within the field will meet to grant or deny approval. This committee may also require post-marketing studies to be conducted to further test the safety of the treatment. If the sponsor fails to complete these studies, the FDA has the authority to rescind approval.


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For Ph.D. students interested in working with the FDA, those within epidemiology or biostatistics fields have the highest chance for employment immediately following their defense. However, to be a hired as a regulatory reviewer or research reviewer, post-doctoral research associates are preferred. Additionally, since the laboratories and the majority of offices are housed in the main facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, these positions are only available at this site. If the applicant wishes to remain local, there are inspector positions available throughout the country. The FDA also provides internship opportunities for interested students from a variety of backgrounds, including undergraduates and post-docs.


Overall, the FDA is a crucial agency in aiding the development of drugs and biologics and ensuring safety and efficacy of these treatments. Given the sheer number of drug applications received, Ph.Ds. have a wealth of opportunities for employment in reviewing these applications or conducting lab work within the FDA. Ultimately, these opportunities provide a medium to enact significant change and guide the path for new treatments.


Edited by: Jennifer Casiano-Matos and Monal Mehta

This blog post was written after attending the iJOBS Career Seminar: Jobs at the FDA on June 13th, 2019.


iJOBS Site Visit to McCann Health – part 2 of 2: The People

by Helena Mello

This is a follow-up post to the article: iJOBS site visit to McCann Health – The Industry, wherein I explained the company’s structure.

The second part of the site visit to McCann Health was a panel discussion with 7 current employees who enlightened us about their paths to getting a job at the company and gave advice to those considering joining a healthcare advertisement firm. The panel was moderated by Roshan Rahnama, VP of McCann Managed Markets.

Ms. Rahnama started by asking Senior Consultant John Denton what was the most interesting aspect of his career at McCann. Denton noted that the company has always been supportive of his desire to transition from one position to another, which was essential for him to experience the breadth of positions at McCann. McCann’s first Strategic Marketing Fellow, Jacob Martin, PharmD, was asked to explain his role and work routine. At the time of the visit, Dr. Martin has done eight-month rotations at each of the three McCann Health agencies that are specialized in different areas of the healthcare market. Despite having a scientific background, Dr. Martin mentioned that he enjoyed learning about the marketing side of healthcare advertisement – especially the creative aspect. According to him, “Creativity is a lot about asking the right questions on behalf of our clients”. Fellows are expected to leave the program with “a broad range of applicable business and clinical skills via a diverse learning experience in pharmaceutical marketing strategy”. If you are in a PharmD program and think that a role in Strategic Marketing might suit you, click here to learn more about the Fellowship.

Medical writers Myka Ababon, PhD, and Whitney Winter, PhD, hold degrees in the biomedical sciences but their paths to McCann have been fairly different. I was pleased to hear both of their stories and confirm that there is no right path to starting a career as a medical writer. There are diverse ways in which one can get started. Dr. Ababon obtained her Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from Rutgers University and is a co-founder of this blog. She learned about Medical Communication by attending iJOBS events and improved her writing skills by writing for the blog (learn about her transition here). Dr. Winter completed her Ph.D. in Immunology, from University of Melbourne, Australia then did a postdoctoral training at Monash University, Australia. Just as Dr. Ababon, Dr. Winter also improved her writing skills while in academia. She worked for a number of years as a freelance science writer. Both panelists agreed that this was fundamental for them to get their feet into the medical communication world, and urged the audience to develop their writing skills – and make sure all the materials sent out, like a resume, are proofread (“no typos!” Dr. Ababon emphasized).

We learned about Medical Communication Strategy, from Jenny Cardozo. Jenny is the Account Director for a subgroup of McCann Health, CMC Affinity, which focuses on medical communication solutions. She explained that her role is to bring “strategic ideas into execution” by managing a multidisciplinary team comprised of social scientists, medical writers, designers, and more. Read my first post about McCann if you want to learn more about strategic medical communication.

To round up the session, the speakers were asked to share a piece of advice for those planning to join the healthcare marketing world. The President of McCann Echo, Jesse Johanson, pointed out that those that join a healthcare marketing agency through their science background have to be open to the marketing side of the organization. In other words, you are going to use your scientific knowledge to support a marketing strategy. Other panelists also mentioned that internship opportunities are a great way to transition to medical writing in order to (1) develop the skills necessary for a full-time position in the industry, and (2) experience the day-to-day activities to assess if it is something you can see yourself doing. The panelists also shared some valuable tips on the interview process and preparation for the job market:

  • Get familiar with the healthcare landscape: read government-related news, regulatory affairs, be up-to-date on pharma industry, product launches, and more.
  • Study the company.
  • Network and have informational interviews with professionals in the field.

I hope this, and the previous, post have helped you understand a bit more about the healthcare marketing landscape! If you see yourself working at a company like McCann, consider joining our blog to improve your writing skills! We are always looking for new writers to bring in a new perspective.

This article was edited by Eileen Oni and Maryam Alapa

iJOBS site visit to McCann Health – part 1 of 2: The Industry

By Helena Mello

In this post, I will share some highlights from the iJOBS Site Visit to McCann Health in New York City. McCann Health is a global marketing company with more than 60 offices worldwide, and is a leader in strategic communications for the healthcare world. Several big pharma and biotech companies rely on McCann’s services to bring their products to life and engage with their audiences. Broadly speaking, McCann’s market is part of the Medical Communications world. However, as I learned at the event, strategic medical communication goes beyond just talking about the science behind a product in a compelling and accurate way. It requires an understanding of human behavior towards health issues, comprehension of the target audience, and much more.

Executive Strategy Director Daryl Somma brought up that simply understanding a disease is not sufficient to explain it. In order to develop a communication plan for disease X, one needs to think “what is it like to live with disease X?”. Moreover, the target group for a particular campaign must be well studied: Do they [the target group] carry the disease? Do they provide care or treatment for patients with it? Or perhaps they live with someone that has the disease. All of these aspects must be factored in when developing pieces of communication for a particular product. In this sense, the strategy team consults with a diverse set of professionals, ranging from social scientists to PhDs trained in immunology and other areas.

In terms of Medical Strategy, there are three focus areas: 1) Healthcare Marketing, in which customers are – usually – pharmaceutical companies looking to launch products; 2) Promotional Medical Education, in which the target audience is key opinion leaders in a given field; and 3) Publication Planning, which helps translate clinical trials and other important findings into meaningful and coherent reports. Regardless of the area, the goal is to develop innovative ways to promote medical and scientific information. For that, McCann seeks employees that are not only well versed in scientific content, but also extremely creative. Some of the top skills they look for are excellent writing, presentation, and the ability to translate complex information. Importantly, as a marketing company, McCann wants its employees to be able to demonstrate why they are the best agency to launch their clients’ products.



Creativity and strategic planning are essential to deliver reliable and compelling advertisement.

In conclusion, in order to be competitive for jobs in medical communications, it is imperative that you (1) develop your writing skills (perhaps by joining our blog!), (2) exercise your interpersonal skills (teamwork and diversity are key for creativity in this area), and (3) think as a marketer (yes, you are going to launch products!). It is not too late to start working on those skills, and if you think McCann might be the right place for you, send them your resume!

In my next post, I will explore careers within McCann Health. I will write about the panelists that talked to us, and how they transitioned from various backgrounds to the biggest healthcare marketing company in the world.

This article was edited by Andrew Petryna, Monal Mehta and Paulina Krzyszczyk.

Introduction to Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics

By Huri Mücahit

The following blog post was written after attending the iJOBS workshop: Primer in PK/PD held on February 20th, 2019

How exactly do pharmaceutical companies choose which medication to pursue for the treatment or prevention of an illness? The answer is through the study of pharmacology (the analysis of interactions between drugs and the human body),  pharmacokinetics (the study of drug movement throughout the body (PK)), and pharmacodynamics (the body’s biological response to the drug (PD)). During the iJOBS PK/PD workshop, Dr. Anson Abraham, Principal Scientist at Merck and Co., provided a deeper look at the science behind these interactions.

Understanding the relationship between medications and the body is fundamental for any treatment, thus, the bulk of the data collected during clinical trials is related to PK/PD analysis. In fact, roughly half of a drug label is informed by these analyses, including the sections covering dosage and administration, dosage forms and strengths, drug interactions, and clinical pharmacology.

Dr. Anson Abraham, Merck and Co., 2019
Dr. Anson Abraham, Merck and Co., 2019

In order to collect PK information, researchers look at the processes after drug administration, which are collectively called “ADME” – absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination of the drug. To start off, a drug can only have an effect if it has been absorbed within the body; therefore, factors such as molecule size and structure, permeability across the gastrointestinal membrane, and the extent and rate of absorption are carefully considered. Following this,  it must be determined if the drug reaches its intended site.  It is important to identify known binding targets of the drug, or if it is absorbed within specific tissues, as this will impact drug dosage and forms. Researchers then analyze the metabolism of the drug, although this is a greater consideration for small molecules rather than large molecules. The four common types of reactions are: oxidation, hydrolysis, reduction, and conjugation; drug-drug interactions are predicted based on this metabolic profile. Finally, whether the drug can be eliminated must be taken into account, as accumulation within the blood stream can lead to toxicity. Due to the in-depth analyses required, as the image below outlines, this entire process is completed within 10-12 years. As such, PK/PD analysts must not only be patient, but efficient, with extracting the relevant information from large amounts of data.

Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics  Volume 93, Issue 6, pages 502-514, 14 MAR 2013 DOI: 10.1038/clpt.2013.54
Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics
Volume 93, Issue 6, pages 502-514, 14 MAR 2013 DOI: 10.1038/clpt.2013.54

If this career sounds appealing to you, Dr. Abraham has several tips. First, as this profession requires an understanding of both the biology and the math behind the analyses, a PhD student in the biological sciences should consider strengthening their mathematical skills. Courses offered at Rutgers, such as Statistics in Clinical Research and Fundamentals in Analysis, and through other specialized programs can help with this endeavor. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies such as Merck often provide internships that include PK/PD work experience.  If you cannot commit to a full summer internship during your PhD studies, the iJOBS program aids Phase 2 students in finding externships, which are less time-consuming, but still provide experience within the field. Additionally, these externships provide an opportunity for students to determine whether they would like to work in the lab to collect the relevant data or analyze the data once it has been generated.

If you’re looking for further information on the PK/PD workshop, feel free to visit the iJOBS page for the complete slide deck.

Edited by: Emily Kelly Castro, Monal Mehta, and Paulina Krzyszczyk