In 2003, Renee Commerford was approaching the end of her second postdoctoral appointment and staring out at an uncertain career in diabetes research. She had cast a broad net looking for a permanent job and had received offers from government (a research appointment at the National Institutes of Health), academia (a grant-supported position at Case Western Reserve University), and industry (offers at Pfizer and the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research).
“It’s just a vast array of people who all come at this single question of how to treat disease, and we are all moving toward one goal.” –Renee Commerford
At the time, she equated leaving academia with failure, so she turned down both industry offers. “I felt like it would be going into the evil empire, that they were going to take projects away from me based on money alone, that the science wouldn’t be as high-quality as it is the academic world, and that all decisions are driven by the almighty dollar,” she says.
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Such notions about the pharmaceutical industry are not uncommon among academics, and recent news coverage of selective clinical trial data reporting and questionable publication practices haven’t helped the industry’s image. But scientists who work within the industry–and in related parts of biotech –say these high-profile controversies have little connection to their everyday work experiences. They are doing top-notch science, they say, which is meant to directly improve human health. And that goal, they maintain, is at least as worthy as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake–the goal that, according to tradition at least, governs research in academia.
After talking to friends in science, Commerford rethought her stance on working in industry and accepted the Novartis offer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, treating it as an experiment. If it didn’t work out after a year, she would leave. That was more than 5 years ago. “It was far and away the best decision I’ve made in my career,” she says.
These days, working in academia isn’t that different from working in the pharmaceutical industry, says Mark Hanson, a former research scientist who is now a marketing consultant for drug companies and academic institutions in San Diego, California. “In industry, you are trying to get to an end product and eventually something that can be marketed, so some of the things pushing and pulling your science are going to be different, but as far as day to day, going to the bench and running experiments, I personally feel they are quite similar,” he says. Pharmaceutical companies have to make decisions on particular research areas based in part on financial considerations, but it’s not so different in academia, he says: “In academia, your research is driven by funding, by what grants you can get funded, and what you can’t.”
Commerford says she has never encountered the ethical conflicts she feared. Projects move forward based on data, not dollars, she says. The one time a compound she worked on entered a clinical trial, she says, the team was very careful, checking and double-checking their toxicology data. The involvement of human subjects gave the work a gravity she never experienced in the lab in academia.
Commerford’s industry job forced her out of her comfort zone in other ways as well, she says. She has learned to work within a team and to manage people. Her very conception of science changed when she started working with pharmaceutical compounds: Thinking about how a compound may affect a living animal added a level of complexity that didn’t previously enter into her science.
Furthermore, “I love the fact that I work with extremely smart people who come from many different backgrounds,” she says. “It’s just a vast array of people who all come at this single question of how to treat disease, and we are all moving toward one goal.”
That sentiment was echoed by David Thiriot, a research fellow working in vaccine and biologics formulation at Merck & Co. in West Point, Pennsylvania. Thiriot likes having a large group of colleagues who are on the same team, he says. Working in academia could easily feel more isolated: “Sure, there’s a community out there, but it’s not the next office,” he says.
Thiriot is convinced that what he is doing will make a difference in human health. To him, the research going on in academia seems too far removed from immediate human health needs. He likes being involved in the drug-development process from discovery through to human clinical trials.
The challenge of moving a product from idea to market is what persuaded Crystal Icenhour to accept a position as president and director of research at Phthisis Diagnostics, a small biotechnology company in Charlottesville, Virginia, straight out of a postdoc. Stories she heard from friends about academic politics convinced her that the academic road was not for her, she says.
Icenhour sought leadership positions when she was training to become a scientist, including a stint as chair of the National Postdoctoral Association, for which she was responsible for budgeting and supervising staff. Without realizing it, she was honing the skills she would need to run her business–skills that industry employers as a whole value highly. She expects her company’s first product, a diagnostic test for waterborne parasites, to reach the market by the end of 2009. In 3 years, she has seen an idea transformed “into a product that will have a real impact on patient health,” she says. “That for me is the biggest driver.”
Biology is the only scientific field in which you feel a pushback against industry, says Hanson, the marketing consultant. He believes that bias against industry careers is dissipating.
In fact, graduate students these days may find the transition from academic training to an industry career to be a natural progression, moving from a patient-centered, translational approach to research they first encounter in academia. Dawn Delo entered graduate school in 2003 knowing she wanted to do patient-focused research. She joined an academic lab that from the start had an entrepreneurial bent. Her adviser, Anthony Atala, had just left Harvard University to cofound the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Delo seized the opportunity to join Atala’s lab and study tissue regeneration.
As she progressed through graduate school, Delo watched the lab grow from 10 members to more than 100 members. She was surrounded by colleagues who were spinning off companies from their laboratory inventions. She overheard elevator conversations about attracting venture capital. This entrepreneurial atmosphere led her to seek a postdoctoral position in industry.
Delo is now at Tengion Inc., a company based in Winston-Salem and started by scientists she trained with at Wake Forest University. There, she has her own project investigating kidney and bladder regeneration, part of a larger effort to use a patient’s own cells to regenerate failing organs.
Delo doesn’t see the profit motive that by definition drives industry science as an ethical dilemma. As a graduate student, she did clinical rotations with physicians and saw people waiting for organs. She wanted to know how to take what she was learning in the lab and develop it for patients. After taking a course during graduate school called “commercializing innovation,” there was no turning back to a purely academic career. She says she sees companies as the entities that translate the discoveries made in academic labs into the solutions that, in Tengion’s case, could solve the donor-organ shortage by allowing patients to regenerate their own organs without using embryonic stem cells.
Scientists working in industry view their world through the lens of their own individual situations, and those differ from job to job and company to company, says Commerford, who believes it’s not fair to judge all of industry by a few high-profile indiscretions. “Companies are all different,” she says. “At least here at Novartis, my science has to be driven by practicality. … Whereas outside, in the academic world, I thought all decisions were driven by money, inside, now I realize that all decisions are driven by practicality. … And that sits well with me.”
Photo (top): Rodrigo Senna