NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Principal Scientist & Group Leader

June 27, 2016

Image of Joseph LeeName: Joseph Lee, PhD

Job Title & Company: Principal Scientist/Group Leader, Shire/Eurofins Lancaster Labs

Location: Boston, MA

How long you’ve been in your current job: Since November 2014 – a year and a half

IC: I was at NCI for five and then picked up by NIDDK for a year to do a research fellowship in the molecular medicine branch

What do you do in your current position?
I am the gene therapy program lead for the Analytical Development group at Shire, but I’m running it as a contractor so to speak. Officially, I work for Eurofins Lancaster Labs.  They have a professional staffing group and in that I am effectively the site manager for the Shire group. Generally, I wear two hats.  In the first, I have two groups under me – the Analytical Development and the Analytical Development Testing Group. In the second, I am also a principal scientist, where I specialize in gene therapy.

What does the day to day look like for you?
It is complicated for me because I have two departments and close to 18 people under me (not necessarily directly managing them – they are embedded within the department with Shire technical leads) for which I am responsible. So, in this role I step away from the technical responsibilities and try to help them more with their career development.  The other hat is the technical hat – I am essentially the analytical development program lead for gene therapies within Shire.

Now, one of the things you need to understand about working in big pharma is all these things sound kind of nice, but big pharma likes to divide things into a hundred different categories. This means that there can be ten program leads for gene therapy but my slice of the pie is Analytical Development. There is also somebody from Discovery, Regulatory Affairs, Process Development, Early to Mid-Stage Development. In our portion, we are responsible for CMC (Chemistry, Manufacturing, and Controls – i.e., manufacturing; leading to Investigational New Drug applications and ultimately to the clinic). We all contribute to the bigger pie as a whole.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
You know it’s kind of funny. You go through that evolution. You are on the bench as a postdoc, then you are on the bench when you are an early researcher, but eventually you wind up off the bench. I know that there are a lot of postdocs out there that don’t want to be on the bench anymore and want to directly go into administrative. But, you kind of think that after so many years of grad school and training, that being on the bench is a comfortable place where you don’t have to worry about anything but the project at hand. Eventually, you get pushed off the bench by getting asked to do more administrative or management projects.  Especially nowadays, there is an internal mandate in which secondary or tertiary development processes are outsourced to CROs (Contract Research Organizations), so you find a lot of what you do is manage your projects through the CROs. This is actually really common within big pharma – a lot of their developmental programs and the analytical parts of it get outsourced to CROs, even though some of it remains in house. It is in that capacity, that we step in and help manage it. A lot of my time is spent managing projects, typically on the phone on conference calls, which I actually enjoy.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
When you are a grad student/postdoc, there is something very gratifying about doing all of the work on your own. I was a fairly meticulous and very careful person and the quality was up to me, so when I ran my gels or did my blots or whatever analyses, the overall quality was dependent on my own time, effort and care. Now as a manager, you sort of have to convey that to your CROs and your internal research group which is very challenging because you have to find out what motivates other people.  Plus, you have to have confidence and trust in your staff to be an extension of your hands.

Did you go through a management training or on-boarding process?
There are always a few courses on management training available, but I think much of it is a trial by fire mentality. I made a lot of mistakes going through my career. You are always making a few mistakes here and there and sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s small. It really is a continual learning process. There are some management courses offered but I think there is an expectation when you are coming in at a higher level, that you already have some management skills.

What was your job search like after your time at the NIH?
After NIDDK, I got a position at a contract research organization (CRO) called BioReliance, in Rockville. I stayed there for about three years and I started as a Senior Scientist in the Development Services group where I managed all of their custom molecular biology and assay development projects. Then from there, I got recruited to a small bioservices company up in Boston called Batavia BioServices. They (actually, my department – Virology & Molecular Biology) quickly folded after a few months. I had a feeling that might happen, so I had been quietly searching. On the same day that my position at Batavia ended, I got an offer letter from Eurofins which was incredibly lucky. I was extremely fortunate in that regard, but the thing is, you don’t lean on that type of luck (at least for me, good timing like that rarely happens).

When I was at the NIH, I didn’t network like I should have. When I look back at my career planning and what I tell postdocs now is that it really is about networking, networking, and more networking.

As somebody who admits they didn’t network like they should have, what do you think then was the key to your success? Can you point to something that helped you get to your position now?
A lot of postdocs leaving the NIH will hear a refrain, “Well, you don’t have any industry experience.” I mean that is really what you are going up against. Recruiters and employers want to see that you have that specific kind of experience. You have to be fortunate to be able to get your CV to the right hiring manager. Like everybody else did in the beginning, I went through the three phases of applications. I did the carpet bombing approach where I flooded everybody and everything – Monster, Career Builder, etc. LinkedIn at that time wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now, but I went through hiring lines in all sorts of places to submit my CV. And that didn’t work so great.

Then, I went into specific companies. For example, I looked at Genentech and looked at who was working on specific projects in terms of the industry/academia type of basic/translational research and I found emails in scientific manuscripts and I started writing directly to these PIs in industry. You can always figure out how to find their email or contact information. That proved to be a little bit helpful and that got me a few hits.

However, the biggest one is contacts. One great source that a lot of people don’t realize or recognize is the account managers. The way I got into BioReliance is that I knew one of the account managers/sales person through BioReliance because she was formerly at LifeTech and I had a good rapport with her. So, when I saw that BioReliance was hiring for a scientist, I inquired through her and she as an account manager sent it to the right hiring manager.

How did you respond to the interview question about industry experience?
This specific hiring manager really liked my “go get ‘em” attitude. However, during the on-site interviews, I was constantly challenged with the line “Well, you have no industry experience.” That is always difficult to overcome and it is very dependent on the hiring manager. Personally, I got mixed results, but generally I inferred that they could have a really good scientist with little industry experience or they could get a lousy scientist with a lot of industry experience. But, if you hire both of us, in six months, I’ll have industry experience and still be the better scientist. So, as a company you have to decide what is more important to you – the science or the industry experience. You have to be able to convey that to your interviewer in the nicest way possible. Like I said, that explanation got mixed results. A few interviewers thought it was arrogant, a few loved it – funny thing is that the ones that thought it was arrogant turned out to not have the advanced degrees and had to claw and work their way up.

In hindsight, is there anything you wish you had done differently? Any last bits of advice?
I had a great time at the NIH as it offers you an environment to pursue many directions in research and you are less imposed with the budgetary component like if you were in a university. With that being said, where you go next will be up to you – whether that is industry or academia.  You need to have a plan and you need to have contingencies if something doesn’t work out. One thing for certain, no matter whether you are in industry or academia, your career can be cut short because of budgetary constraints or reorganizations of departments.  Personally, I have never felt or allowed myself to be so comfortable that I don’t contingency plan for the worst. I have been fortunate because I always do have a plan if something bad were to happen. It is like a game of musical chairs and you kind of understand that the music is going to stop at some time – if you have good instincts, you can anticipate when the music stops.

If you are good at what you do, you’re constantly going to be contacted by recruiters. That is why LinkedIn can be so helpful. There seem to be two types of recruiters. One who finds you through LinkedIn and the other who finds you through internal databases like Monster/CareerBuilders or other sites. The ones who find you through LinkedIn are pretty sophisticated and tend to search more for executives, principal scientists, director level positions. The ones at Career Builder and Monster are going to lump you in with the keywords on your resume and they’ll inquire about your availability for contractor positions more at that associate scientist level.

LinkedIn is an incredible resource so I always suggest that everyone maintain their account

Any last bits of advice?
You need to learn how to manage people. At some point, you will be put into a position where you manage people and I think that you have to be very serious about getting to that level where you become a manager. You have to take it at heart that you are dealing with somebody’s livelihood as a manager. You have to be responsible for them but you also have to be accountable for you what you do and how you could potentially affect their lives and their livelihood. It’s easy to push somebody around and expect them to do all sorts of stuff for you, but you have to make sure that they are getting something back from it.  If they sense that they aren’t getting developed professionally, then you will lose one and then you’ll lose another and so on. People will see that you are an ineffective manger and once they take your reports away from you, then you are on the island.

It is easy to think that you may be something special – well educated, highly trained. You are part of this great ‘fraternity/sorority’ of researchers seeding academia and industry.  It is up to you, but it is better to, at least try to be, a good person.  Paraphrasing a quote…the measure of a person is not how they treat their superiors, but how they treat their subordinates.

Good luck to all!

PART II: Managing Mentoring Relationships – Tips for Mentors

June 20, 2016

Last week in Part I, we offered some ideas for mentees in order to maximize their mentoring relationships. This week, we are going to focus on mentors.

Mentors may find it difficult to find time and energy to manage and train someone, all while trying to satisfy their own work demands. In addition, teaching and training someone is a skill that must be practiced. If you are new at it, it can cause stress for all parties involved. Wondering how you can improve upon your own mentoring skills?

Here are some ideas for mentors:

Be mindful in selecting your mentee. The mentoring relationship, if conducted with care, can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both mentee and mentor. If the match does not fit though, it can also result in a lot of stress and unnecessary effort on both ends. Therefore, it is crucial that the mentor chooses their mentee with care. Assessing the mentee’s motivation, taking similarities and differences into account, and starting the mentorship with a trial period are all steps both parties can take to ensure a successful match. Selecting a good mentee also requires self-knowledge: what are your strengths and weaknesses, how much time and effort do you have aside from your own work, and how many mentees can you realistically take on?

Set clear expectations for performance from the start. In addition to getting used to the new workflow, mentees are also likely getting used to personalities and working styles of their new colleagues and superiors. As this takes time, being explicit about your objectives and expectations for the relationship from the get go will result in more productivity and a better mentoring relationship. Be sure to challenge your mentee, but do not set expectations so high that they feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Once you have seen the mentee’s performance, it is crucial to offer honest, specific feedback on a regular basis. Everyone loves positive feedback, but it is usually the negative feedback that sparks more learning and change. In instances where negative feedback is needed, it can be helpful to start off with a positive comment/suggestion, and perhaps end with one too. Once you have a sense that your mentee has attained mastery, escalate their responsibility over time to boost their confidence. Make sure to accelerate at a slow enough pace though!

Be accessible. Especially in the beginning. Even with the best communication and clear expectations in place, it can be difficult in a busy research environment to keep up to date and on the same page with both day to day tasks and long term goals. Projects and daily objectives change, mentees can learn of new opportunities that change their perspective. Therefore, keeping regular meetings, both formal and informal, can be a great way to check in, keep in the loop, and stay on the same page. Sometimes meetings are best in a formal context, but informal meetings over lunch or coffee can also help build rapport, and convey what you want in a more effective manner. No matter the context of the meeting, it is important for both parties to practice active listening, which includes dedicating full attention to the discussion, good eye contact, and engaging body language. In some settings, mentees could greatly benefit from even working directly with the mentor on a project; giving them direct exposure in your research and working methods could give them lifelong methods. No matter how you do it, it is imperative that you spend time engaging directly with your mentee.

Although mentoring a young researcher does not always result in a tangible benefit for the mentor, there are many valuable results that come from mentoring a student. First, creating a positive teaching relationship with a mentee often results in more work getting done for the lab’s or mentor’s own research project, saving time and energy. Playing the role of a mentor can also result in a greater self-understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a researcher and leader.  Lastly, mentoring a young researcher benefits the scientific field as a whole, because it provides direct hands-on learning experience for young professionals who might have no other way of getting such experience. If done correctly, it constitutes a win for all involved.

If you want to read more about mentoring relationships, check out previous blog posts on: Identifying Mentors: Why it Matters  and Getting the Most Out of Mentoring Relationships.

PART I: Managing Mentoring Relationships – Tips for Mentees

June 13, 2016

Perhaps you are a summer intern or you are managing a summer intern?

Regardless of your role, managing the mentor-mentee relationship can be a difficult task.  Attempting to creating a good personality fit  and work style with your mentor, and effectively offering and using feedback, all while managing ever-present demands in the workplace can prove to be a tough and confusing experience for both mentors and mentees.

Wondering how you can better choose and create a positive working relationship with your mentor or mentee?

Here are some ideas for mentees:

Take control of your career path, even when under the wing of a mentor. Even when you’ve found a mentor and created a good relationship, it is up to you to direct and own the relationship. So show leadership and direct it towards what you need. Once you’ve found a mentor, it is easy to sit back and assume that your path is set to go, or to defer to the mentor for all thoughts and directions. This can be a dangerous mindset to fall into though, because it removes you as an agent in your own professional future. Beginning mentoring relationships with a clear discussion of mutual goals and expectations is crucial. In a similar vein, as you continue in your relationship with this mentor, an ongoing periodic checkup is also important, to continually evaluate these mutual goals and expectations, and to assess whether the mentorship is still beneficial.

Become an expert at receiving feedback. It is always easy to accept a compliment, but part of becoming successful in any professional enterprise is accepting and working on your weaknesses. Therefore, it is crucial to be receptive to both positive and negative feedback given to you by your mentor. This means that you listen carefully, demonstrate that you understand, make your best attempt to adjust your performance based on this feedback, and then, after some time and effort, seek additional feedback on how well you’ve progressed. A helpful tool in improving receptiveness to feedback is to focus on your mentor’s communication style, how they offer feedback, and in turn, how you react to it. Also, remember that mentoring is a two-way street, and giving feedback to your mentor can be a valuable tool in boosting your working relationship.  This could come in the form of asking clarifying questions regarding directions or in advocating for yourself by saying, “I tend to work best when ____. Could we find a way to accommodate this?” 

Transition effectively if it is not working out.It is easy to become demotivated if you find that your mentor relationship is not working out the way you want it. Despite this, it is important to keep in mind that mentoring relationships can be complicated by many factors, including: differences in work style, communication style, changing motivations, and evolving workplace dynamics. Make sure to keep focused on your goals, and to leave emotions out of it. Once you find a new mentor, you can work to continuing to achieve your goals.

It cannot be overstated how important and complex the mentor-mentee relationship is. For the mentee, it could very well be a jumpstart into a lifelong career. For the mentor it could be an opportunity to profoundly impact a young researcher, as well as improve the mentor’s own communication and leadership skills. To ensure success, stay engaged, be clear in your communication, and take ownership of the opportunity.


Next week, in Part II, we will discuss tips for mentors.

First Generation College Students: Challenges, Strengths, and Resources to Develop Confidence and Move Ahead

June 6, 2016

Image of a graduationg cap with the phrase "I'm First!"If you are the first in your family to attend college, you may have already experienced some challenges or concerns like: not knowing many contacts in the fields of science or medicine through your circle of family and friends or feeling like an imposter and wondering if you really belong in various professional groups or meetings.

You are not alone.  Research shows that first generation college students often have concerns like these, but research also highlights many of the strengths which first generation students bring to their lives and careers including:

  • Resilience after coping with obstacles and challenges
  • Appreciation for opportunities
  • Persistence to achieve goals in spite of difficult circumstances
  • Adaptability in the face of change

It is extremely important to take advantage of the resources around you. Here are some strategies to develop confidence and move ahead:

Learn how to develop professional career networks

You can learn how to how to develop and strengthen your professional/career networks.  Research has shown that specialized support programs can be very helpful to first generation college students.  If you are in training at NIH, you have access to numerous free support programs and resources to help you learn how to build professional networks:

  • Learn about informational interviewing as a first step in the networking process.
  • Watch videocasts to learn about networking.
  • Contact former NIH trainees for advice about their career paths. The NIH Alumni Database lists many scientists who initially were post-bacs, graduate students and post-docs at NIH.  You may contact them directly to get advice about their career fields.

Incorporate your personal values into your career choices

For first generation college students, sometimes there is a gap between family experiences/values and the demands of a career and degree process.  If you struggle with how to manage this gap, there are two things you can do to help clarify your values and to move ahead toward your goals:

Identify how mentoring can help you build your own community in science

Start by reflecting on the kind of mentoring you think will help you progress in your career. If you are unsure, read some articles to find out what makes a good mentor.

  • Reach out to finds groups that will support you. A large part of feeling comfortable in your career and work environment is having a community to share the experience.  The NIH is a big place.  Groups like the ones listed here will help you to find a community that will help you to feel at home.

Let OITE staff know how we can help you during your training time at NIH
It’s not always easy to reach out for help and support. In the Office of Intramural Training and Education, we are excited to have you here at NIH and want to do everything we can to help you be successful .

  • Start by talking with a career counselor to begin your career planning or reach out to another OITE staff member.  We can help you to take the next step to a successful career.