SIUConversations Oxford: Academia And Industry - Advancing Science And Your Career

Author: Ruth Sang Jones Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

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Our first speaker, Dr Melissa Brereton, is a medical writer at NextGen Healthcare Communications. She started by sharing her insight that most people stumble into a career through a convoluted path from A to B. She believed that the childhood question of what you want to be when you grow up can last into adulthood, even when already beginning to settle into one field. But she emphasised that this was very common and perfectly acceptable.

Dr Brereton began her academic journey at the University of Manchester, reading for a degree in Pharmacology after switching from Biomedical Sciences. She was persuaded to do a PhD on ion channels, funnily a topic that she had previously put on one of her many pragmatic ‘likes versus dislikes’ lists. During her PhD, she realised she thoroughly enjoyed communicating science via writing and presenting. However, she also admitted to disliking the pressures to publish, the disappointment of failed experiments and demand for networking. To be better informed about her next career move, she dabbled in science writing, public engagement, event management, consulting and teaching all whilst completing her PhD. With all things considered, she decided to remain in academia to do a 3 year post-doctorate at the University of Oxford, which was very successful in publishing output. Despite this, she again had to question herself if she wanted to continue along this path towards setting up her own research group. To choose this option, she needed to be self-assured that this was her passion. Was there something beyond academia in the nebulous ‘Unknown’?

So after 10 years of academia, Dr Brereton made the move into medical communications, where she can still apply many of the skills she acquired in the academic environment, including inter alia, team work, creative thinking, coming up with new ideas, keeping calm under pressure and quickly interpreting complex data. She was further drawn to take her position as a medical writer because of the job security, which is an issue that worries the postdoc community. Now as a medical writer, she works on a variety of communication media to provide consultancy to the pharmaceutical industry, covering drug development in multiple stages; from discovery to post launch. This is primarily to raise awareness of medicines. Dr Brereton was very willing to share her transition from academia with the audience, as she feels strongly that the conversation about what industry can offer is necessary, as it is too often portrayed as the ‘dark side’. Thus, she supports organisations like the SIU which act as informative platforms. For those interested in medical writing, there is a MedComms career event in Oxford happening in January 2018 (http://medcommsnetworking.com/oxford18.html).

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Our 2nd speaker Dr Mark Richards is a senior lecturer in the Physics department, Imperial College, and is also the co-founder of Duvas Technologies. His talk was titled ‘Choices and Chances’ to highlight the notion that the opportunities presented to you for a career path are linked to your decisions. This fit in with Dr Brereton’s remarks about a non-straightforward career track.

After being motivated through secondary school by competition with peers, Dr Richards entered University of Manchester to read for a BSc in Chemistry, becoming the first in his family to obtain a university degree. There, he developed a passion for spectroscopy and was thus drawn to take on a job at Perkin Elmer after graduation in their spectroscopy division. However, as it became more evident that his position was more associated with retail and that R&D positions were run mainly by PhD holders, he decided to return to academia. In other words, his experience gave him the perception that a PhD would make him more marketable to industry research. This led him to complete a PhD in Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College, London, involving spectroscopy of atmospheric chemicals.

Of course, as he said, life happens and the death of his mother made him re-evaluate his career decisions. Following his PhD, he moved into the world of finance, where he successfully applied his research skills to his job as a finance analyst. So like Dr Brereton, he is confident in saying that science leaves you with strong transferable skills.

When offered a postdoc opportunity that married both his enthusiasm for spectroscopy and commercial technology, he made the move from industry back into academia. His project encompassed the development of a state-of-the-art portable air pollution sensor, which drew technology from multiple scientific disciplines, including signal noise reduction adopted from high energy particle physics. This device was commercialised into DUVAS (Differential Ultraviolet Absorption Spectroscopy ) technologies.

Dr Richards ended his talk with some reflective thoughts. He was nostalgic about a childhood cartoon- a boy with a little magic bag out of which he took out the things he needed to solve a problem in any scenario. As an analogy, Dr Richards believes that part of a person’s career is stocking this metaphorical little bag with skills and knowledge, which can take place both in academia and industry.  Your bulk of tools in the bag can be taken out and applied to any opportunity presented to you from the choices that you make.

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Our final speaker of the night was Professor Chas Bountra, a professor of Translation Medicine at Oxford University and a key advisor for many academic, biotech and drug discovery programmes. He was also voted one of the ‘Top Innovators in the Industry’ for drug development.

Professor Bountra’s talk was more about inspiring the next generation of innovators. He stressed the need for discovery of new medicines for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. He said that the world is desperate for new drugs that are more affordable and clinically efficacious. Yet, most large pharmaceutical companies do not have many successful new drugs in their pipeline.

Having worked at GSK, he had first hand understanding of the industry strengths in pharmaceutical developments. They have the infrastructure to do all the upscaling activities needed and academia often cannot equate to this ‘phenomenal strength’. But the academic environment also offers many advantages, including fewer hurdles to accessing patient data, more collaboration opportunities and more likelihood of a researcher having more holistic knowledge of a drug.

So can we get the best of both worlds? Prof Bountra believes the strengths of academia and industry need to be brought together for more innovation in drug development. But of course, this is not just limited to drug development. He urged the audience to think of the big problems in the world and to think of solutions to these problems. ‘We need more people moving around’, he emphasised. People can gain knowledge from both academia and industry, and bring them together to be great innovators. He also believes that an experience of industry knocked humility into him but also taught him how to manage people in a short time.

Prof Bountra ended by urging us to take risks, because innovation is born out of risks.

From all our speakers’ talks, it is evident that a transition from academia into industry or a return from industry into academia are all possible. The overarching piece of advice was to be flexible in your career path; it is not set in stone and picking to stick to one side from the get-go is not necessary.