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Robyn Rourick: Consider Career Change through Others' Eyes

A wise mentor led her through the beauty products industry. Her graduate studies guided her to a forensic crime lab. A savvy recruiter pointed her to an unlikely role in safety assessment/nonclinical operations. Former SLAS Treasurer Robyn Rourick, M.Sc., shares how viewing her career from others' vantage points helped her find success in analytical chemistry.


For Rourick, job change equals career opportunity, and she manages it with a careful eye on end success. "In your career you have to deal with companies closing or downsizing. It's difficult to consider possibilities that are not within what you define as your scope of expertise, but that's where the best opportunities can be," she comments.

Rourick remembers a recruiter's call five years ago regarding a safety assessment role within a drug discovery company. "I thought she didn't understand my background and qualifications," Rourick explains. "While it didn't make sense to me, the recruiter thought it lined up with my experience. She asked me to speak to the hiring manager to make the connections."

She's glad she took the advice. "They weren't looking for someone who had the standard course of tools. They wanted someone who had a different perspective to address the situation. Even after I moved into that position, it was uncomfortable for me for a while because I felt that I didn't have what I needed to effectively perform in the role, but that was the whole point," says Rourick. The job was with Genentech in South San Francisco, CA, a company for which she still works although her title is now scientific manager in BioAnalytical Sciences.

"You have to think about your own satisfaction. I knew I wanted to leverage that first position for what it was worth," she says. "I learned a lot from that job and was able to connect it to my passion for analytical chemistry."

She has built a successful career by exploring opportunity and pursuing professional relationships wherever they bloomed. When challenged by the next move or wondering about the next right choice to make, she connects with the professionals in her network for input. "I like to see opportunity through their eyes," Rourick says. "I have two or three mentors who are intentional in how they look at me. They make the connection with me when they see opportunity."

She endorses authentic networking to build long-lasting relationships. "Some people network to make their next move or to get that connection that they feel that they need," she explains. "There's not necessarily depth to it. I think to network authentically, you need to build deeper relationships. It allows you to build connectivity, so people understand you. There's sustainable value in that."

Rourick adds that SLAS is a great resource for establishing an authentic professional network. She finds career support in open dialog with her fellow Society members. "SLAS represents a diverse membership. If I have a question that's more related to commercial products, someone such as former SLAS Board Member Frank Fan (director of research, Research and Development at Promega, Verona, WI) is so approachable and his opinion is invaluable. And I can't say how many times I have called SLAS Past President Dan Sipes (director, Advanced Automation Technologies at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, San Diego, CA) to get his opinion on technology. He also shares with us the products he is evaluating," Rourick states. "I feel that there's real insight, access and information that is practical from SLAS members. I have learned so much from them on all levels."

Rooted in Science

Before networking built her career, a love for science laid the foundation. Rourick's first scientific inspiration came in fifth grade with a challenging teacher, a set of encyclopedias and a killer science fair project. "I had an amazing teacher who facilitated a lot of hands-on scientific experiments," she remembers. "I was charged about that." Her science-minded father helped ignite that spark by engaging Rourick's scientific focus, hypotheses formation and experiment execution.

"My parents had a library with encyclopedias in our house and I remember thumbing through those to come up with an idea for our science fair. When I started reading about arterial sclerosis, I thought it would be cool to show an example of it," she explains. She built a heart pump that mimicked arterial sclerosis blockage for an award-winning project.

This early experience led Rourick to undergraduate studies in chemistry, at Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT, with plans to go on to medical school. "Chemistry was quite challenging for me. I didn't see myself moving into medical school with it, but I really enjoyed it," she says, adding that perseverance paid off. In her junior year, she applied for various internships and got one at Clairol, Stamford, CT, in their analytical laboratory.

"It was led by Dr. Ira Rosenberg. He became my mentor and allowed me to have a comprehensive internship experience, learning the fundamentals of analytical chemistry and how one would apply it to that particular industry," Rourick continues. "He invited me to stay on part time through my senior year of college, which I did. At that point, I thought I would go on to graduate school, but he offered me a full-time position so I could get more practical experience."

After a few years of work, Rourick entered graduate school part time and after she earned a master's degree in forensic chemistry from University of New Haven, West Haven, CT, she left Clairol to work for the State of New York in a crime lab doing analytical chemistry and leading an initiative on the application of mass spectrometry to drug analysis, something she had gained exposure to at Clairol.

"I loved forensics, and I even thought about getting a Ph.D. in toxicology," comments Rourick. "Then I got a call from Ira. He had moved on to lead analytical R&D at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) in Wallingford, CT, and had a great opportunity for me." Because Rosenberg was an amazing mentor, she went. Her new position involved structural characterization of small molecule drugs and elucidation using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and mass spectrometry (MS).

"That was the late 1980s and mass spectrometry was just coming into the mainstream," says Rourick, adding that her responsibilities also included integrating mass spectrometry for open access of automation to run high-throughput screening (HTS) analysis. There was also increasing concern about the attrition of new molecular entities.

"I was able to work on automation in terms of looking at different metabolic profiles, as well as impurity/degradation work. We were at the forefront of the field at that time, and I was grateful to be in the heart of it, surrounded by the best in the field," Rourick says. "They were pioneers in shaping how the industry moved forward, the people who almost invented mass spectrometry – at least electrospray analysis. They were my peers and mentors."

After almost 10 years of continued advancement at BMS, Rourick had an opportunity to join a biotech company. She had been on a speaking circuit over the years giving presentations at several national conferences when she was approached by another enthusiast of mass spectrometry and HTS for drug discovery regarding an opportunity to lead technology at CombiChem.

"I thought it was time for me to get into biotech. We made the move to San Diego, CA, and that was a great opportunity to look at robotics and automation," Rourick observes. "There was a focus on HTS profiling for various absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) properties. I led a group focused on front-end responsibilities with the integration of robotics, but also on the back-end dealing with large amounts of data and processing." The process involved quickly formulating data for collaborators, coping with attrition and selecting among a series of molecules that could potentially enter or continue in the drug discovery and development pipeline.

In the midst of this, a series of buyouts led CombiChem to change hands a couple of times, ending up with BMS. "So it was like I never left!" Rourick says, adding that the company was eventually sold again to Deltagen.

At this point, Rourick decided to join a small biotech company, Kalypsys. "It had several molecules in its pipeline, and they were looking for someone to build up analytical chemistry," she relates. She established a department that was initially focused on supporting synthetic chemistry, which involved open-access instruments, as well as walk up for chemists in NMR and mass spectrometry.

"As the molecules progressed, I was exposed to analytical development so I started to become involved with drug substances and products as well as the more formal aspects of good manufacturing, clinical and laboratory practices (GMP, GCP and GLP) of the business. I had an opportunity to build that functionality out as our pipeline progressed and our molecules moved into the clinic."

Eventually clinical failures led to the close of Kalypsys. "It was the worst time in the market," she remarks. "It became clear that I would need to expand my geographical search." For Rourick, one of the biggest obstacles in career change was being a non-Ph.D. female.

"I was so lucky to have the career experiences I have had. People joke that I really got a Ph.D. in mass spectrometry at BMS!" she says. "I think the issue with not having a Ph.D. is that you have to prove yourself in terms of technical capabilities and leadership. You have to always benchmark those areas, especially as you navigate different areas of opportunity."

Opportunity at this juncture came in the unlikely form of that nonclinical operations in safety assessment role at Genentech, Inc. It looked like a long shot, and Rourick almost didn't pursue it. Her responsibilities included outsourcing and overseeing toxicity studies to support the molecules in the non-clinical phase. It was a position laden with potential – once she could see it through the hiring manager's eyes.

"The safety position was great!" Rourick says of the job she held for four years. "I learned so much about the business at Genentech, Inc., which I think is important in terms of a career. This kind of role is not only about the scientific or functional areas of the business, but also about how your company does business. This cross-functional role allowed me to interface with multiple aspects of the company. It also allowed me to perform the role I do now much more effectively and to consider how I could contribute and add to the company's success."

Her current position in the Bioanalytical Sciences Group advanced her down the pipeline. "I focus on biomarker work and building a bridge into clinical diagnostics. That's the way that the industry is moving," she comments. "It's all about getting the right drug to the right patient based on profiles and genomics. I have an opportunity to play in that space and also integrate that with analytical work. It's bioanalysis of these biomarkers that helps to determine efficacy and safety."

The Volunteer Connection

For Rourick, life outside the lab is not a lot different from her career. She engages in public speaking and works tirelessly to help connect people and give something back. It's just that her subject matter is very different from analytical chemistry.

While many other scientists and engineers enter their children's classrooms with hands-on experiments, Rourick heads in as an Art in Action docent. This volunteer post requires formal art appreciation training and giving presentations in the classroom of her 12-year-old son, Spencer. "Art in Action puts me in a whole different realm!" she says with a laugh. "My family can't believe that I go into a classroom and actually teach art."

Each school term for the past three years Rourick has trained for a different focus. "Fifth grade was American art, sixth grade was ancient art and seventh grade is Renaissance art," shares Rourick. "The training allows me to learn about artists of whom I have never heard. The presentations I develop from this must include the technical aspects of the artist's work and discussions of the symbolism in their art." Her favorite artist was Flemish painter Jan van Eyck and his painting "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini."

 "I enjoyed his technique, particularly around the characters depicted in his piece," Rourick explains. "He enlarged them in comparison with the rest of the background with an emphasis on emotion. The piece depicts a married couple who are huge in the picture compared to say a chair in the background. van Eyck tied in a lot of symbolism – for example, a cherry tree outside the window represents growth and opportunity. We couldn't believe all the stuff that was in the picture." In addition to this work, Rourick also is active in her son's Boy Scout Troop and leads a women's group in her church.

Some of her volunteer work does remain close to her career. Rourick is on the board for the California Analytical Chemists Organization Pharmaceutical & BioScience Society (CACO-PBSS) in the Bay Area and chairs the San Diego chapter. "We host technical workshops and quarterly seminar luncheons that are scientific in nature and allow people to connect with different professionals and speakers that meet the needs of that particular chapter," she says.

Another important career connection is Rourick's link to SLAS. "I have been really lucky to be involved with SLAS and before that the Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA). I started as a session chair, became a track chair, then a conference program chair and went on to join the Board of Directors," she says. Since that time, in addition to being SLAS treasurer, she has chaired the SLAS Audit Advisory Committee and the SLAS Finance Committee.

Rourick's board term ended at SLAS2015, but she remains actively engaged. In particular, she would like to advance the SLAS Women Professionals in Science and Technology Special Interest Group (SIG). "I am hoping to continue that post and build it out more with programming throughout the year – webinars, facilitated discussions, etc. SLAS2015 was our third meeting, and it focused on the Power of Storytelling.

Rourick would like to continue nurturing SLAS' growth, maybe even through the Americas Council, where she served as board liaison. The Council's goals reflect a bit of what Rourick has practiced in her career – making sustainable connections. "The Society is reaching into the profession to develop a membership base that will allow for sustainable education and programming. We have a vision moving forward to accomplish this."

April 13, 2015