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Ready to Forge a Career Outside of Pharma?

It's fair to say that currently, the majority of SLAS's 15,000+ members are working in drug discovery and/or drug development in pharmaceutical companies, biotechs, academia and government. However, a growing percentage of the membership is made up of scientists and laboratory automation specialists who are forging careers in other industries—notably, clinical diagnostics, food and agricultural sciences, forensics and security sciences, petrochemical and energy and even consumer products.


Laboratory science and technology professionals who are seeking to use their skills in non-pharma areas, either to take on new challenges or embark on careers, can learn a good deal about what to expect and what's needed to succeed from their fellow SLAS members. Visit SLAS Career Connections and the SLAS LinkedIn group regularly for job-search information and opportunities to interact with peers. And enjoy this article, in which SLAS members reveal how they got started in their careers outside of pharma and provide insights into what it takes to join them.

A Sweet Choice

W. Jeffrey Hurst, Ph.D., started with The Hershey Company (Hershey, PA) 35 years ago and is still excited about the opportunities for growth and career expansion both at the company, and in the food industry as a whole. "There's no question that the food industry is rife with possibilities because we all have to eat," he quips.

In fact, some individuals eat even when they don't have to—and not just at the table. Hurst recalls a collaborative study early on in his career that involved sending chocolate samples out to eight labs. "I got results from seven of them, and so I finally called the fellow in the eighth lab, a friend of mine, and said, ‘what happened to the samples?' And I heard this long ‘ooohhh' at the other end, then an expletive. He said, ‘I ate them.'"

The fact that Hurst has been able to retain his sense of humor through the years probably is due at least in part to his obvious job satisfaction. "My training is in biochemistry and clinical chemistry. Originally, I was actually going to stay at Hershey a few years and go cure cancer or some other disease," he says. But he got an early start in Hershey's R&D area, was able to help chart the direction of the program and go on to secure teaching appointments and pursue multiple areas of interest. And so he stayed.

As a principal scientist, Hurst works in Hershey's analytical services and research group, where he focuses on the development and evaluation of new analytical technologies and methods, as well as food-allergy research. He is also an adjunct professor of comparative medicine at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, a member of the graduate faculty at several nearby universities and author of close to 300 published research papers.

Similar multifaceted careers await SLAS members entering the industry, according to Hurst, largely because of the Global Food Safety Initiative. The initiative was formed in May 2000, following a number of food-safety scares. "There's a tremendous amount of work in this area because we have food-safety concerns on a regular basis, whether about pesticides, bisphenol A, phthalates or any other ‘compound of the week.' Another concern is about imported ingredients. A recent high visibility example is the food that ended up containing melamine."

To be successful in the food industry, you need not only science skills and "continual education," but also "good interpersonal relation skills," Hurst stresses. "You need teamwork, and you need to be collaborative, and increasingly, you have to be willing to work in a number of areas just to get an appreciation of the company." For example, Hershey has a program that requires certain new employees to spend a couple of years rotating every six months or so into a different department. "People are hired with that in mind and knowing it could happen," Hurst explains. Moreover, in any global company such as Hershey, "you would have to be ready and willing to move to another part of the world to support operations in that area."

If you're moving out of pharma and your specialty has been something like mass spectrometry, Hurst recommends taking a course and reviewing the literature in food analysis to understand what people with similar skills have been working on. SLAS can help with this kind of outreach and provide one perspective through its annual conference and its two peer-reviewed scientific journals, the Journal of Biomolecular Screening and the Journal of Laboratory Automation. Be aware that although the company may be supportive of your work and research, if you want to write it up for publication, "for the most part, you could be doing that on your own time."

On the other hand, innovation is highly valued in the food industry. "The analogy we've heard is that the operational people are where the rubber meets the road, whereas we scientists often are where the rubber meets the sky," Hurst observed. "Although innovation clearly is valued in most industries, the approach is somewhat different here, and we move much faster." Whereas innovation in drug discovery could lead to a new drug 15 years later, the consumer products industry is interested in something "more immediate," he says. For example, Hurst was involved in the development of Hershey's recovery beverage, reGen, a project that went from concept to product in about two years. That approach is typical in his work at the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, where he investigates the benefits of cocoa, chocolates, nuts and other ingredients with a view toward new product development.

Catching the Bad Guys

Michael Stangegaard, Ph.D., a forensic geneticist in the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), finished his master's degree in chemistry and biotechnology, and pursued an advanced degree with the intention of going into drug screening and development in the pharmaceutical industry. But just as he was finishing his doctorate, he saw an advertisement for a forensic geneticist, and thought, "Okay, maybe this is for me," he recalls. "To me, the word ‘forensics' meant I would be part of solving crimes, catching the bad guys and exonerating those who aren't guilty. That was definitely part of the attraction."

Has it turned out the way he imagined? "We do have our moments," Stangegaard says. "But generally, once you get into it, you're really just working on case files," he explains. "That became a little too predictive for me, so I moved into laboratory management and, from there, development and implementation of new automated methods for forensics testing. I realized that our liquid handling robots are really pretty cool, and before I knew it, I was responsible for all of them and that's what I do now.

"It does send some chills down your spine when you turn a liquid handler over to the lab technicians and say, ‘okay, now it's fit for the purpose; I tested it, I revalidated it and now you can process samples on it," Stangegaard continues. "And deep inside your stomach, you know there are people behind those samples and they may be going to jail in part because of the outcome of the tests we conduct."

When a news story documents a conviction based on DNA evidence, Stangegaard knows that the samples were processed on one of the instruments for which he is responsible. That's because in Denmark, only his university-based laboratory handles all forensic evidence, which is different from other countries, he acknowledges. For example, in Sweden, the forensics department is part of the police department; in the United Kingdom, several small labs are under contract to process forensic evidence; and in the United States multiple departments are involved, depending on the state and possibly the city as well.

That said, on a day-to-day basis, "the work is about the same all over the world. The kits may be called something different, and some of the fundamental techniques may be a bit different, but by and large, they're not. It's all about extracting DNA from samples. It's all about not mixing up samples, making sure that a specific sample is connected to the correct result," Stangegaard says. "We're a bit hysterical about that."

That means the team has "zero tolerance for errors," Stangegaard continues. "It's not about not making errors; it's about having a system that ensures if you do make an error, somebody down the line will find that error and correct it before the result is transmitted to the court and the police system. We work together and we all rely on each other, because nobody's perfect."

Stangegaard and his colleagues are open to innovation, but because they need to be sure everything is done correctly, "we'd rather wait a few years before implementing new technology, until we're sure that it has caught on and will stay valid for years to come." Right now, the team is exploring next-generation sequencing techniques as a potential replacement for the standard sequencing techniques currently used in the forensics lab.

"For people who like to do something for the community by ensuring that the right people go to jail and those who aren't guilty get exonerated, forensics is a fun field," Stangegaard enthuses. "I love challenges, and from what I hear, there are big backlogs in the U.S. That means huge piles of samples to process, and SLAS members could really help reduce those backlogs."

Ag Biotech Retooled

Jason Abbas, M.S., a research scientist at Syngenta, grew up in a farming community in north central Iowa. "My grandfather owned a farm and my father helped him, and so we spent a lot of time there. That's where my interest in seeds really started, and how I got to where I am now is the combination of that experience and my interest in science and technology," Abbas says.

Even with that background, when Abbas went to college, he initially embarked on a science degree with the intention of becoming a physical therapist. But while working in the laboratory, he became interested not only in microbiology, but in the technology—laboratory equipment and automation—that was involved both in doing gene fusions (mainly with aspergillus species) and in evaluating the responses.

Those interests led him to an internship at Pioneer Hi-Bred (Johnston, Iowa) between undergraduate and graduate school. "That experience motivated me even more to develop my skills and knowledge in the laboratory automation area," Abbas recalls. After graduate school, he returned to Pioneer Hi-Bred, where he honed his skills in troubleshooting laboratory equipment and implementing new platforms.

"Taking my science background and melding it with some of the equipment aspects really brought everything together for me," Abbas says. Eventually, he moved to Syngenta Seeds, where he was hired to lead the effort to scout for and implement new technologies throughout the company's global laboratory network.

What is his advice for SLAS members thinking of embarking on or switching to an "ag biotech" career? "One big message for those who want to make the move from pharma is that there are more commonalities between the two industries now than ever before," Abbas stresses. "People in drug discovery may be working with a chemical, and we may be working with a seed, but we get to a product using very similar paths and approaches."

One key transformative change for the ag biotech industry is the advent of technologies and automation platforms specific to the industry, Abbas notes. "Until recently, from a technology perspective, the ag industry was lagging significantly behind pharma. That's because for many years we had to adapt and modify platforms developed for pharma to our needs. What's happened especially over the past five years is that the companies producing these technologies are now looking at our industry more closely, and spending some of their development time and effort on solutions that are specifically suited to us. That's a big change from where we've been." And while that means new hires will have a bit of a learning curve, even if they've been working on similar platforms in pharma, the similarities far outweigh the differences, according to Abbas.

Another similarity between drug discovery and hybrid seed production is that both areas are "very tuned into safety issues and therefore are highly regulated," Abbas continues. "The regulatory testing that needs to go into genetically modified products before they're launched is significant. We spend a lot of time, energy and money ensuring that those products are safe, not only for consumption by people and animals, but also for those who are handling and planting the seeds. Safety is an important strategic pillar for the industry, and so is providing a quality product."

The industry also is open to innovation, which Abbas says is another strategic pillar. "We drive and push innovation every single day of every single week. It's all about discovering new solutions and being creative, so we welcome individuals with new ideas and approaches."

The bottom line: "Today's ag biotech companies are far more in line with what drug-discovery scientists may be doing in their existing careers than they ever were in the past," Abbas says. "The technology, the methodologies and approaches to new solutions, the open mindedness and willingness and drive for innovation are definitely extremely important. We are not stuck in the 1950s as we may have been 10 years ago. We've come a long way and are continuing to push that innovation envelope."

Applying Pharma Skills to Biofuels

Stephen Hughes, Ph.D., a research molecular biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, moved to the agriculture industry after a varied career in pharma. However, unlike Abbas, Hughes works mainly on the molecular biology end. "From the time I started in pharma in the mid-to-late ‘80s until I left the industry in 2000, all the excitement centered around using molecular biology to screen for new drugs and how that was the wave of the future," Hughes recalls. "That excitement is now taking over in agriculture, with the push to use agricultural products to make chemicals and fuels. It's huge, and it's just starting.

"When I first got to the USDA, I thought, ‘what can I do here?' But then I realized that I could take the platform I was using to screen drugs, and instead of inserting a target gene, for example, I could put in an entire library of genes for agricultural use," Hughes continues. "Those skills are relevant for producing biofuels and many different commodity chemicals from agricultural materials such as corn, corn stalks, wheat, soybeans and switchgrass, he explains. "Researchers in the USDA," Hughes points out, "are using a variety of molecular biological approaches to develop bioproducts and bioprocesses for sustainable energy production that will reduce dependence on petroleum and add value to agricultural wastes."

Hughes' latest project involves working with a type of fungi capable of making bio-gasoline. "We're right at the beginning, trying to figure out how to identify the correct molecule (the molecule of interest comes in various forms), how to make it and how to scale it up," he says. Similar to a pharma drug-discovery project, the biofuel project involves a team approach. "I'm a hard-core gene jockey, not a chemist. I depend on my colleagues to do the analytical work. And every day, we come in and we're excited! I'm convinced it's going to be a breakthrough, and I've never had so much fun interacting with a group of people who are as fascinated as I am by what they do."

In addition to technical skills, enthusiasm and a spirit of collaboration, what other qualities should someone thinking of moving into the ag industry from pharma bring to the table? "Flexibility and an entrepreneurial bent are essential if you're moving from big pharma," Hughes advises. "You have more freedom to design and manage projects as long as they fit in with the overall objectives of the program. Creativity is definitely a plus," he adds. "It's like a roller coaster. You have to enjoy the ride, and you have to be versatile.

"I have a lot of friends who are out of jobs, and I tell them to never bottleneck themselves," Hughes continues. "Recognize that a skill like expressing proteins, which is what I do, is something that's universally needed. The same is true for working with robots; it doesn't matter what you do with the robot—everybody needs you. So don't say, ‘I'm the drug screener guy.' Sell yourself as a robot guy. Sell yourself as a molecular biologist. Because if you say ‘I'm a pharmaceutical screener,' you won't get the job that's in front of you."

A final word of advice: "Keep an open mind and be ready to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself," Hughes advises. "Right now, agriculture is a wide open field. Every day I try to figure out how I'm supposed to get my job done and there's five million ways to do it, unlike pharma, where the targets have been established, for the most part. Here, you're limited only by your own creativity." If that excites you, allow yourself to think you can make a career change.

November 10, 2011