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

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!

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