At the annual student retreat of the Sanford-Burnham Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in Palm Springs, Calif, – about which we wrote last week – students were treated to keynote addresses by Drs. Kim Newton, scientist at Genentech, and Brion Murray, research fellow at Pfizer‘s Oncology Research Unit. Both are very accomplished scientists, have made significant contributions to drug discovery, and hold leadership roles within their companies. Both were kind enough to answer a few questions on their experiences in science and the road to independence in a career of research.
What made you decide to participate in our annual student retreat?
Dr. Newton: I viewed participating as a chance to learn more outside of my own field and meet potential colleagues and collaborators of the future.
Dr. Murray: We need more scientists. I was hoping to motivate the graduate students to stay in science and consider applying their expertise to finding solutions to unmet medical needs.
What motivates you as a scientist?
Newton: Curiosity about how biological systems work. Many experiments will fail, but there is nothing like the excitement of an unexpected and startling finding to spur you to solve the next piece in the puzzle.
Murray: For me, it’s also curiosity. A drive for understanding cancer. And a passion to make medicines that affect patients.
What research or career perspectives do you now have that you wished you had gained earlier, as a graduate student?
Murray: I wish I’d understood the relevance of science better, which means connecting science to the patient.
Newton: I’d say that whom you train with has a major impact on your future career. Working hard is key obviously, but having someone in your corner that understands what elevates a study into the top-tier journals and will do all they can to help you address a big question is a huge advantage. The connections that you make through a mentor can also open doors down the road.
What advice can you give a student who wishes to postdoc or generally transition to an industrial setting?
Murray: Pick a complimentary science for postdoctoral studies to expand your range of scientific abilities. An industrial postdoctoral fellowship can allow you to perform many types of research in a single setting. Understand that to maximize the benefit of an industrial postdoctoral fellowship, there is a premium on collaboration and communication to best interface with the dynamic nature of this environment. Nonetheless, a postdoctoral fellowship involving research that is complementary to your thesis work should help you view problems from multiple points of view.
Newton: Take the initiative. If there is a particular group or investigator that you would like to train with, write directly to them. Explain your interests and background, and ask if they have positions available in the near future and if it is possible to visit the lab in person. Reaching out shows enthusiasm, a desire to make things happen, and you will be on their radar straight away, whereas if you simply submit your resume online in response to a particular job posting, you may not stand out from a large number of applicants.