Please tell us about yourself
From the time I could start reading, my bookshelves at home were filled with volumes of books on dinosaurs, nature, planets, the human body – anything that fell within the realm of science. I credit my love of science to those early years which cultivated in me a sense of curiosity and wonder at the world around me. My interest in science at that time was based primarily on my fascination with learning new facts. I did not quite know what to do with those facts, but just reading about them was exhilarating. I discovered that I was good at Biology because I enjoyed learning about it, or perhaps it was the other way around. More often than not, people enjoy the things that they are good at. This combination of interest and skill led me to pursue biochemistry in college. As I delved further though, I started to find biochemistry a little dry with seemingly unending pathways and processes. I wanted to focus on something at a more macro scale and neuroscience seemed to fit the bill. It focused on an organ which was largely unexplored, and its objective was to understand the relationship of micro level circuits/molecules to macro level behavior.
What did you study next?
Soon after, neuroscience became my calling and I decided to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience to dive deeper into the mysteries of the brain. When I began my PhD, I was quite certain that I would pursue a research career. But unlike most of my classmates, I was set on going into industry rather than academia. This is a topic for another time, but based on what I had read and heard from others, the risk/benefit ratio of pursuing an academic career did not seem worth it to me. As I progressed through my PhD, a few other realizations and events further altered the course of my career.
What were the challenges you faced in research?
I realized that research moves at an excruciatingly slow pace and that it takes a huge amount of effort to make even a small dent in the body of knowledge in a field. For me, bench research was proving to be quite isolating and was becoming more tedious by the day. Rather than expanding my knowledge base, a vast amount of my energy was spent refining technical skills in the lab to improve reproducibility of my own results. In the lab, I felt that my research was so far removed from the real world that it would be difficult to measure any impact down the road. Like some of my classmates I started becoming disillusioned with research.
What did you do next?
To counter this feeling, I decided to explore a “new” side of science by getting involved with student groups, taking courses at the business school, and undertaking mini-projects outside of the lab that allowed me to work with biotech industry professionals. I soon discovered that I enjoyed this much more than the actual bench research. It involved greater interaction with people, moved at a faster pace, and allowed me to make a more immediate and tangible impact on the world (this last point was especially important for me). I was naturally drawn to the world of biotech, where decisions made by teams had a very direct impact on the patients who needed their medicines. Considering what I had learned from my experiences in grad school, I decided that a career in the commercialization of drugs would be the best fit for my interests.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
Unfortunately, no biotech company would hire me on their commercial team straight out of grad school without some sort of full-time experience. I realized that making this type of transition would require additional investment and effort on my part. Luckily a former grad student from my PhD program who is now at Genentech reached out to me about an internship in their Market Analysis and Strategy group. My internship project lasted for about 4 months and involved conducting a competitive landscape analysis and identifying risks and potential opportunities for the company. Although the internship was temporary and compensation was low, it was an invaluable opportunity for two reasons: it was a great experience, further affirming my decision to work in a commercial team in biotech, and it helped me get my foot in the door of biotech.
In the process of mapping out my transition to a full-time role, I sought the advice of my seniors at Genentech. I discovered that, as an intern, almost anyone I approached was willing to mentor me and share their learnings. Based on input from my mentors, I decided to pursue a role in strategy consulting to get a broader exposure to different therapeutic areas. During my two and a half years in consulting, I got the opportunity to work on projects covering all stages of a drug’s lifecycle, worked with teams across large and small biotech companies, and gained a deeper appreciation of the business questions that drive commercial teams. More importantly, I built the necessary set of skills and experience I needed to tackle these business questions using a structured approach. Another key learning for me was that more than the specific therapeutic area, it was the people I worked with and the potential to make a difference that mattered the most to me.
How did you land your current job?
With consulting experience under my belt, I was able to land a full-time position as a Sr. Manager in the competitive intelligence/portfolio strategy team at a biotech company called BioMarin. In my new role, I am far removed from the bench research that characterized my PhD dissertation; however, I am much closer to influencing key business decisions that affect the lives of patients with rare diseases. I am lucky to have found exactly the kind of role that I was looking for with the right balance of science and business, and plenty of opportunity to grow. In some ways, my transition from the bench is over and my real journey to the boardroom has begun.
It is possible that in the future my career will veer in a completely different direction. What is certain is that the diversity of jobs that can benefit from hiring someone with a science background will continue to grow. The challenge for me and for anyone in the sciences will be to determine which job would best fit one’s interests. In my opinion, the ideal career is one that fulfills 4 basic requirements: you enjoy it and are passionate about it; you’re good at it; it rewards you financially; and it allows you to make a positive impact on the world. If a career meets these criteria, then it will naturally lead to success. To those of you who are in grad school or are looking to make a career transition: my biggest piece of advice would be to find mentors willing to guide you and have a long-term strategy in mind.
How do you define career and professional success?
I believe the ideal career fulfills four basic requirements: It enables you to follow your passion; it gives you joy and a sense of fulfillment in doing good work; it offers financial rewards; and it allows you to make a positive impact in the world, such as what I’m doing at BioMarin, a company that develops and commercializes biopharmaceuticals for rare genetic diseases.