ASPIRE on the Road: Boston
Exploring the Most Innovative Square Mile on the Planet
By Ralph J. Hazlewood, Ph.D., and Jessica M. Overstreet, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellows
The BRET Office of Career Development ASPIRE Program furthered its mission to empower and prepare biomedical trainees at the Ph.D. and postdoctoral levels by offering the first out-of-town ASPIRE on the Road in May 2018. This initiative was designed to broaden the experiences of current trainees through site visits to several pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the Boston, MA, area. Home to “the most innovative square mile on the planet”, Kendall Square was the perfect ecosystem to learn about different industry career options and to tour the facilities of leading companies in the pharmaceutical sector.
Our group of six graduate students and five postdoctoral fellows arrived in Boston on May 2nd and set off to explore the Cambridge area on foot through a walking tour led by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, a local non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the life sciences workforce through outreach.
On the first full day of our trip, we visited Amgen, hosted by Vanderbilt alumnus Charlie Knutson, Ph.D. Amgen participates in an “open lab” layout designed to facilitate collaboration and the free exchange of information by removing assigned desks, computers, rooms, and lab benches. The impact of this design was evident in the presentations by Dean Hickman, Ph.D., the Scientific Director of Preclinical Research, and other scientists, which showcased how teamwork across different departments is leading to new treatments that improve patients’ lives.
The group’s second visit was to Merck Research Laboratories, which is located just outside Kendall Square. We immediately sensed the buzz of excitement stemming from the recent FDA approval of a first-in-class cancer immunotherapy drug. There, we were met by Vanderbilt alumnus Chris Tan, Ph.D., Director of Business Development and Licensing, whose role is to establish bold and meaningful collaborations with start-ups and biotech companies, academic centers, and even other big pharma companies by leveraging the expertise of each organization to drive innovation and collectively tackle complex diseases.
To round out our first day, we helped welcome over 60 Vanderbilt Ph.D. alumni for a networking happy hour at a restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. Unsurprisingly, this event was a favorite amongst our group because we had the opportunity to meet and talk to numerous scientists who are now in many different professional roles in the Boston area.
Graduate student and program participant Francis Prael, III, was “impressed with the diversity of careers of the Vanderbilt alumni and how excited they were to talk about their work.”
Megan Vogel, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow on the trip, shared our sentiments that “the alumni were very willing and eager to provide support and guidance to us as we attempt to transition from academia into industry.”
The happy hour was also beneficial for the alumni who used the time to reconnect with each other. After the happy hour, a small group of participants and alumni wrapped up the night by dining at a quaint French restaurant in downtown Boston.
We visited Pfizer and Kymera Therapeutics on the second day of our trip. A few of us were specifically looking forward to visiting Pfizer because of the great rapport we had developed with our host, Ghazal Hariri, Ph.D., and with other alumni the previous night. At Pfizer, we learned about the research areas of focus, hiring practices, and the postdoc program through a series of seminars held during breakfast. Next, we toured the lab spaces and cores, which, as expected, were state-of-the-art and exceptionally clean. The Pfizer Innovation Research (PfIRe, pronounced “fire”) Lab tour was a real treat, as we learned how their scientists are exploring ways to use wearable technology to diagnose neurological diseases. We wrapped up the visit with a Q&A session with Pfizer scientists and postdocs who were very open about what it is like to work in an industry lab and about how to transition into industry positions. The key takeaways? Network, network, network… and to really hone those soft, transferrable skills.
Our final visit was to Kymera Therapeutics, a start-up which is housed at an innovation hub called LabCentral with about 60 other biotech start-ups. As we toured Lab Central, it was easy to be inspired and to understand how the shared laboratory spaces and resources, which include expensive lab equipment that would normally be beyond the reach of individual companies, help to nurture early ideas and innovation in this group of next-generation start-ups. At Kymera, which harnesses the power of the protein degradation pathway as a therapeutic modality, we had an extensive conversation over with lunch with Vanderbilt alumnus Laurent Audoly, Ph.D., President and CEO, and the Kymera team. The Boston-area alumni we met all eagerly shared stories about their career paths, providing support and guidance to our group. Reflecting on our trip, this transformative experience left each of us with a renewed motivation to further develop our transferrable skills learned as Ph.D.’s and to confidently explore careers in industry.