September 2012 FILS Bioinformatics, Systems Biology, and Modeling Career Paths Event Blog by Benjamin Leung
To view a picture video of the event, see link: http://video214.com/play/Rsko9kVg1000Ii1jz2Hgcw/s/dark
Personalized medicine. Attend any life science industry conference and you'll hear the term constantly. While its definition remains somewhat vague, most would agree that it encompasses the utilization of bioinformatics and systems biology to gather and analyze data about cellular and disease states in large scale, simultaneously analyzing thousands of genes and proteins. As part of a larger technological trend of "big data" sweeping through the business world, the hope is that this flood of biological information will help reverse the alarming failure rate in drug/therapeutic development in the industry by yielding insights not available from existing single-gene approaches. Obtaining and analyzing this data requires skills that fall outside of the realm of traditional bench biology, instead drawing heavily on knowledge first utilized in engineering, computer science, and statistics/mathematical modeling. The fall season of the Mass Bio/MassBioEd/Propel Careers Futures in Life Science career discussion panel opened with a lively gathering of local experts in bioinformatics and systems biology. The panel included Timothy Galitski, Ph.D., Head of Science & Technology, EMD Millipore, Jason M. Laramie, Ph.D., Director of Integrative Genomics, GNS Healthcare, Matt Onsum, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, and Scott Thomas, Senior Director, Predictive and Computation Sciences, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals. James A. Rogers, Ph.D., Principal Scientist, Metrum Group, expertly moderated the panel and contributed to the discussion.
Given that most of the panelists began their research careers before systems biology and bioinformatics were recognized as distinct disciplines, how did they position themselves to be involved in these fields? While they admit a certain amount of serendipity in their professional paths, the panelists chose to take an intellectual leap earlier in their careers towards more quantitative biology. Ultimately they embraced the multi-disciplinary nature of systems biology and learned the mathematics or computer science necessary to achieve their goals. They also had the foresight to recognize that the early microarrays and genome sequencing technologies were more than simply automating existing technologies; they realized that in the not-to-distant future these approaches could provide a new dimension to how biological networks are understood.
Despite the promise that systems biology holds to revolutionize modern medicine, its approaches are adopted to varying degrees across the industry. Some companies have been founded on the premise that systems biology will give them a comparative advantage in therapeutic development, while others employ it in a more restricted fashion as an ancillary tool to be used in some drug development pipelines.
Systems biologists in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry are not more insulated from the financial and organizational upheavals of the sector than their non-systems biology colleagues. What do the panelists do to best ensure the longevity of their careers and survival in the industry? Aside from doing their utmost to execute their duties to their current employer, they remain connected to their peers and colleagues throughout the industry, whether through conferences and/or collaborations, or more directed networking via email or LinkedIn. They also seek to constantly improve their value proposition by not only improving their technical skills, but their interpersonal skills. Excellent communication skills are not only important for presentations to upper management, but for navigating workplace politics/culture. The value of being liked at a personal level should not be underestimated!
Being at the forefront of a constantly evolving discipline, many of the panelists have been presented with a choice to remain technically focused or to take on more managerial responsibilities. This technical/managerial choice also influences their decision to work for a small company or multinational pharmaceutical corporation. Smaller companies, because they generally have less bureaucracy and have a narrower business focus than big pharma, tend to be more innovative and better able to remain at the forefront of technology development. Thus if your long-term interests remain on the technical end of the spectrum, you may be happiest working for a niche company that allows you to focus on only your specialty. Those who are more interested in affecting change on a large scale, either in terms of resources or people, may be better suited for larger companies. Like technical depth, the skill and experience to manage and lead large groups or organizations does not spontaneously appear overnight. It only comes gradually as a result of actively seeking opportunities to do it, as well as educating yourself on the topic.
The next Futures in Life Sciences Panel Discussion and Networking Event, on Reimbursement, Pharmacoeconomics, Patient Advocacy, and Market Access Career Paths, will take place at the MassBio offices on Tuesday, October 16th. For more information and toregister, see the following link: http://fils72012.eventbrite.com. We look forward to seeing you there!