From Basic Research to Pharma – Why Laura Chose Industry
Interview by Shau Chung Shin
Tell us a bit about yourself!
Where are you from?
Originally, I am from Munich, but I have lived in and around Frankfurt for almost 10 years now. I moved to Frankfurt for my studies.
What have you studied?
I have studied Biophysics here in Frankfurt at the Goethe University. I first joined the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics (MPI of Biophysics) for my bachelor's thesis in 2015. Back then I worked in the lab using electrophysiology in the group of Klaus Fendler. In 2017 I re-joined the institute for my master's thesis, but this time I decided to learn computational methods and started to work in the group of Gerhard Hummer. I enjoyed the computational research so much that I stayed in the same group for my PhD.
What have you been doing during your PhD?
In my PhD I primarily used a method called molecular dynamics simulation to investigate dynamical properties of biomolecules. I am interested in understanding the flexibility of proteins which can be helpful to optimize binder molecules, and hence potential drugs. I also studied specific enzyme-substrate interactions, for example the interactions of one protease of SARS-CoV-2 with its substrates. In a collaborative project, we found that the protease PLpro can weaken our immune response in addition to its commonly known role in viral replication.
As a researcher, you can choose from a great variety of career paths. Apart from academia, you can found a company, also, there are also plenty of possibilities in the industry. You will soon start a new position as Postdoc Researcher in the Research and Development Department of the pharmaceutical company AbbVie and contribute to the development of drugs. How did you get there?
I saw the job ad on LinkedIn. The first step in the application process was quite simple: only a CV was needed to be uploaded to the company site. Then three interviews followed, two short virtual interviews with both HR and the research group, and then a full interview day on site, where I had the opportunity to get to know future colleagues and the facilities.
Why have you decided to take the industry path?
I have decided to take the industry path early on, even before starting my PhD. In an internship at a pharmaceutical company during my master’s degree I learned how exciting industrial research can be and from then on, I pursued this career path.
Why do you think this path suits you well?
There are several reasons. One is that I always enjoyed seeing when science turns into actual application. This can happen both in academia and in industry, but the focus on application is of course higher in industry. I also enjoy solving problems in a collaborative manner. Within a company usually more than one person is assigned to a project (in contrast to a PhD project) who all follow the same overarching goal with similar priority. This collaborative spirit supported by frequent status meetings suits me well. Another reason is that the career path in industry offers diverse job opportunities for my future. Academia has only very few permanent job opportunities and becoming a professor at a university is not appealing to me.
To be honest, we haven’t focused too much on helping students taking the industry path in the past. Traditionally, we were specialized in the academic path. However, we have already taken several steps to change this. We have introduced our new IMPRS last year, that includes personal development trainings and job market skill trainings. Next year, we will adjust our PostDoc program and organize trainings and mentorships systematically. What has helped you during your time at the MPI BP towards the next step in your career?
My supervisor Gerhard Hummer was extremely supportive. He enabled a collaboration with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi during my PhD which solidified my path to R&D in pharma. Additionally, the virtual Max Planck Career Talks helped me to see how many different jobs, besides professorship, are out there for PhDs: science manager, editor, data scientist, science communicator, patent lawyer, consultant, political advisor. And, within a company, job opportunities can vary a lot from R&D to Production and Quality.
Another career event in the past gave me a lot of insight on how a typical working day looks like in different jobs: In 2018 the Max Planck Alumni Association (MPAA) organized a full-day event at our institute with a focus on careers outside of academia. This in-person event made it possible to exchange with alumni in an informal way. Also, for every PhD student at the MPI who is enrolled in the Goethe University, I highly recommend joining the GRADE program. They have plenty of useful and free workshops.
What can we do to better support our researchers with regard to diverse career paths?
As mentioned, the in-person career event organised by MPAA in 2018 was really helpful, and it would be nice to see something similar in the future! More generally, I personally think it is great to support PhD students if they want to do an industrial internship within their PhD studies. However, I also know from experience that initiating a whole collaboration project with industry can be complex.
What do you think you will miss about working at the MPI?
My former colleagues, of course!
Thank you, Laura, for giving us these insights. I wish you all the best for your career!