Drs. Weaver, Kouse, and Raina

Left to right: Jeremy Weaver, PhD, Andy Kouse, PhD, and Medha Raina, PhD

In a first of its kind for The NICHD Connection, we are following up with not one, but three, former fellows who entered a career in industry. In this panel-style Q&A, Drs. Jeremy Weaver, Andy Kouse, and Medha Raina (all former Storz lab postdocs) answer pertinent questions about industry careers. But first, each former fellow will introduce themselves:

Jeremy Weaver, PhD

I worked in the lab of Dr. Gigi Storz, where I endeavored to identify new small proteins in bacteria and characterize their functions. I was at the NIH for just under four years, from 2015–2019. I now work as a research and development (R&D) scientist for Thermo Fisher Scientific. My primary responsibilities are to innovate and develop new products in the area of protein biology. Before our current pandemic, I spent most of my time at the bench.

Andy Kouse, PhD

I joined Dr. Gigi Storz’s laboratory as a postdoc in 2014 and left in 2019. While in Gigi’s lab, I studied small RNAs, which are similar to eukaryotic miRNAs. I was involved in projects to characterize their evolution, processing and function. Upon leaving Gigi’s lab, I joined the biotechnology company Paragon Bioservices, which is a subsidiary of Catalent Pharma Solutions. Paragon functions as a contract development company that works alongside clients and the FDA to research, manufacture, test and distribute vaccines and gene therapies. I work as an associate scientist in our Analytical Development department, where I develop and execute tests to ensure the quality of our gene therapy solutions at every step of the manufacturing process.

Medha Raina, PhD

I joined NIH in 2014 and was in Dr. Gisela Storz’s lab for almost five years. While in Gigi’s lab, my projects involved identifying and characterizing non-coding regulatory RNA that also encode regulatory small proteins. In 2019, I also joined Paragon. I work as an Associate Scientist III in the upstream process development department where I am involved in developing and performing analytical methods to support process development activities.

Without further ado, let’s kick-off our industry Q&A. Enjoy!



Q

Thinking back to when you were postdocs, what questions were most important to ask about careers in industry?



Jeremy Weaver
Jeremy:

I feel like I never asked anyone very specific questions about their day-to-day activities. I didn’t think about companies having more moving parts than an academic lab. Going back, I might ask questions like: How often do you have meetings, and who attends these meetings? Do you ever perform tasks that you didn’t think you would, and if so, what were those tasks? Are you ever concerned about the financial situation at your work, and how often do people talk about resource availability? Who do you work with on a daily or weekly basis? How many people at work know your name?

Andy Kouse
Andy:

I think that the most important question to ask about industry is what career paths are available? Graduate students and most postdocs go through similar training in university or government laboratories, which fosters a very specific idea of what a career in science entails. Industry jobs can consist of bench work and have the same feel as an academic or government lab, or jobs can be more varied and include positions specializing in regulatory work, safety, technology transfer, document writing and review, manufacturing, product development, etc. These jobs can also be quite specific. If someone enjoys a certain aspect of science, there is probably a job that will fit those interests. Even if someone is not looking to industry as a career path, I would suggest doing searches on job sites just to see what is available.

Medha Raina
Medha:

The one thing that struck me the most on joining industry was my lack of knowledge regarding various departments or positions that are available, which leads to missed opportunities. I wish I had asked someone about the roles within these departments, and if they would hire someone with my skill sets for either bench or non-bench roles. Another question I would have loved to ask is how much of an impact does postdoc length or publication number have on landing a job in industry?



“From the get-go, I say it’s important that fellows find the career they feel happy in and that fits their skill set. I’m happy whenever someone finds a career path that makes them happy! I am proud of people in my lab who are successful in industry, and so I talk about that as a success.”

~Dr. Gigi Storz on how she helps fellows feel comfortable talking honestly about career goals

Gigi Storz



Q

I noticed a similarity in Andy’s and Medha’s responses and would like to follow up on it: For each of your respective companies, could you describe the different career paths available, and, if known, what skill sets might make a postdoc hirable for those different departments in the company?



Jeremy Weaver
Jeremy:

The most obvious career path is as an R&D scientist, but this requires more than just good lab hands and a pile of publications. With more PhDs on the market than ever before, presentation skills and an innovative mind are becoming necessary traits.

An intermediate between bench and non-bench work, quality (assurance or control) is an option for those with a strong background in data analysis.

The easiest route to a non-bench job would be to start in R&D, as Thermo Fisher loves to promote and hire internally. Scientists have moved to areas like program management and product management without formal training or certification. Without this stepping stone, both formal training and experience would be required for program management. For product management, a lack of experience could be made up for with strong presentation, interpersonal, and analytical skills.

Manufacturing is also an option (these positions often have a “scientist” title). This requires many of the same skills as program management (organizing groups and processes) but without the formal training requirement.

There are also many options that are off the bench that only require strong presentation and interpersonal skills, such as technical support, sales, and field application work. Many scientists also look to industry for its manager route. While every person between me and my CEO has a PhD, I will honestly tell you that a postdoc is not going to be hired as a manager under any normal situation.

Medha Raina
Medha:

I think Jeremy has already mentioned all the main career paths available for postdocs in industry at Catalent. Overall, the most important skills for industry, apart from technical knowledge, are interpersonal and communication skills. I agree with Jeremy that once you get into industry, it's easy to transfer to other departments and roles. At Catalent, its highly encouraged to gain experience working in different departments. 

The process development department (and similarly manufacturing and operation) would be an easy transition, as the main activities involve designing, setting up, and executing process development experiments and providing recommendations for process improvements (from bench scale to bioreactors).

Project/program manager is a non-bench career alternative at Catalent; however, this requires some industry knowledge. You can make this transition after maybe a year or so working in industry, as it requires some professional experience and knowledge about project management practices. For project/program management, postdocs must have excellent communication and presentation skills.

Positions in quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) involve planning and monitoring scientific manufacturing in accordance with guidelines and legislation. Required skills include being extremely detail oriented and having excellent written and communication skills, as this job involves a lot of documentation. An example position that a postdoc can transition into is QC scientist in method development, method transfer or analytical development. Some of the positions in QA/QC have non-bench roles, especially in quality assurance.

I think Andy can point out if I have missed something.

Andy Kouse
Andy:

Adding to what Medha has said, QC scientist jobs at the bench consist of testing samples at every step in the production cycle using a variety of molecular biology techniques including PCR based assays, western blots, SDS-PAGE, electron microscopy, etc., and developing methods required to test these samples.

In contrast, a non-bench quality control path is as a QC reviewer or document writer. In this role, you review or write documents to ensure everything meets FDA guidelines. These positions require a strong attention to detail and communication skills.

Another position is a production engineer. These individuals work to manufacture the vaccines and gene therapies that we ultimately distribute to our patients. Each of these positions require good technical and trouble shooting skills, which transfer well between a postdoc and an industry position.

Something that Medha mentioned, and I want to emphasize, is that good documentation skills are required for each position. Every step of each process must be documented to ensure that the therapeutics that are being distributed are up to guidelines.



“Postdocs learn a lot from former members in my lab, so I actively encourage current postdocs in the lab to talk to former postdocs. If former postdocs come back, they often have a meeting with the current postdocs. I think the lab network can really be a huge resource!”

~Dr. Gigi Storz on a realization she had since starting her own lab

Gigi Storz



Q

It’s nice to see how many bench and non-bench options are available to scientists in industry. What are your day-to-day tasks in your respective roles? I also want to loop back around to some of the topics Jeremy brought up earlier, such as frequency and content of meetings, unexpected tasks, and co-worker rapport.



Jeremy Weaver
Jeremy:

My primary tasks are to design and perform experiments to advance the development of new products. Documentation (aka my lab notebook) is probably my most important secondary task. On a regular basis, I also need to prepare for and present at project meetings. I am encouraged to spend ten percent of my time innovating, which often means reading papers.

The most important meetings are the project meetings, which are usually weekly. The core members of these meetings are the R&D scientists and managers on the project, product management, and program management. As the product proceeds towards completion, members from quality, marketing, and manufacturing will also attend. Depending on the project, you may also have attendees from organic synthesis, formulations, or other specialty sections. A full-scale meeting might have five people attending at early stages and 20 people as the project approaches completion. Some weeks also have extra meetings with just specific members of the project group; these meetings vary greatly—sometimes it can be zero occurrences in a month or three meetings in a week.

I also attend two weekly board meetings, where members of R&D stand in front of a board and talk (one board meeting is focused on a set of projects and the other on innovation). I have one (or sometimes two) R&D meeting(s) that are attended by scientists from our site and as many as six other sites around the globe; these meetings always include higher level management. I have a weekly team meeting, which includes my manager and the people reporting to him. I attend bi-weekly Green Team meetings, where personnel from across our site discuss and implement environmental initiatives. I also attend a weekly, virtual happy hour that is hosted by my boss’ boss’ boss’ boss and includes scientists from across three sites.

There are tasks that you might not think of as you read the R&D scientist job description. Every member of R&D is required to perform two lab-wide safety inspections each year, audit another scientist’s notebook each month, and complete monthly safety activities. Many scientists have responsibilities for ordering specific sets of lab supplies, performing regular maintenance on equipment, or being in charge during fire drills. I have had to train technical support and sales personnel on products that I helped launch. I was sent to a conference to assist with the company booth (aka support sales). I have performed quality control analysis for projects that I’m not working on. I have had to design and edit figures and legends so they would look just right on the internet or on pamphlets. Also, I have probably read more patents in the past year than papers; this makes sense now, but it was not something I expected going in.

I collaborate with an organic chemist to make specific molecules, and on a previous project I worked closely with another R&D scientist (mostly to make sure we didn’t do the same experiments). When that project moved closer to completion, I had to work more closely with quality and marketing to make sure that everything was acceptable.

Andy Kouse
Andy:

A typical day for me would include catching up on QC comments and reviews of my work from the previous day. Following that, I will start my experimentation for the day, which could include training on a new technique, processing samples, or performing tests to validate a new test method. After I finish my experiments, I will usually write up my results and have a meeting with my supervisors or clients to review the data. If I am not performing experiments during the day, I will usually be writing or reviewing documents and comparing our test methods to FDA guidelines to ensure we are in compliance.

As for the questions posed by Jeremy, I have meetings with either clients, supervisors, team members or other departments daily. Our locations in the Baltimore area consist of hundreds of people over three shifts that are working towards a single goal, so it is necessary to keep everyone aligned and on the same page. The meeting attendees are usually people in my department and typically range from analysts to managers and occasionally department directors. We also have meetings with other departments and clients, although those are less frequent. The upside of having frequent meetings is that I work closely with a lot of people throughout the company and we know each other by name.

Medha Raina
Medha:

A typical day for me involves performing analytical tests on process samples, analyzing the results, writing reports, and communicating reports to other members on the projects. Other tasks include working on research and development projects, like developing new analytical methods or refining existing ones in response to changing requirements during product development. A typical day also includes planning and managing the resources we have available to ensure that all deadlines are met.

I usually work closely with other members of my department daily, as my primary role is to provide analytical support to the group, but I do sometimes work with people from other departments on site, as well as other sites, to provide analytical testing support to ongoing projects. As most of my work is very collaborative, I get to interact with a lot of people and hence know them on a first name basis.

On average, I have meetings about once a day, and they range from internal and/or external data updates to research and development meetings. These meetings are usually attended by team members, supervisors, the director and the vice-president of our department and other collaborating departments.



Q

Earlier, Medha mentioned that she would have asked if postdoc length or the number of publications impacts landing a job in industry. What are your opinions on this?



Jeremy Weaver
Jeremy:

I don’t think either are that important. I had no published papers from my postdoc when I was interviewing for jobs. You need to have data, be able to tell a story, and have soft skills. I was being hired to innovate, so my presentation highlighted innovation. My resume listed training I completed at NIH, and I was specifically asked about the program management course I had taken. They were much more interested in why I was interested in them than they were in what papers I had in the pipeline (something they never asked about).

Andy Kouse
Andy:

I agree with Medha, that this would have been good information to have before applying for an industry position. While the ability to point to publications and years of experience in a role will always be looked on favorably, it is not as important for industry as for positions in academia. Industry employers are not as concerned with a publication record or the amount of time as a postdoc. What they are concerned with is your ability to perform the required tasks in an efficient manner and how well-rounded you are as a scientist and employee. If you and another person are up for the same job, and the only difference is that you have a stronger publication record, but the other person has stronger soft skills, I think it’s more likely the other person will get the job.

Medha Raina
Medha:

My personal experience has been that publication number doesn’t matter. People look at your lab skill sets and soft skills. Their main concern is if you are open to learning new things, can work independently, and can work collaboratively with other people when the need arises. One concern people in industry have with a long academic postdoc is that one might not adapt to the industry setting, where you play a “role” in the project as compared to managing the entire project.


If you have additional questions for these former fellows, please reach out to our editor Shana Spindler (shana.spindler@nih.gov), and she can put you in touch with Andy, Jeremy, and Medha.