I’m currently at a nonprofit focused on tuberous sclerosis complex, but I was in the pharmaceutical industry for 16 years beginning immediately after my postdoctoral fellowship. My bachelor’s degree was in pharmacy — a practical, health-oriented degree. Even when I began research as a graduate student, I always envisioned going into industry. Working for a company looking to translate research into treatments was appealing, and the funding challenge in academia was a big negative. Seeing the real-world effects of research was important to me.
I felt productive in industry, although every few years my focus would have to shift to a new project. Our work could have had an impact if we had longer to do the research — but the company decided to reorganize in 2011, and they closed our unit. In ‘big pharma,’ at least in the company I worked for, the decisions were not long term. That was the tipping point for me to leave and enter nonprofits. A nonprofit focused on a particular condition isn’t going to focus on a different one in a couple of years unless we cure the condition. It’s a longer-term payout than one guided by the immediate demands of industry.
I do miss generating data in the lab. I miss feeling like I am on the front lines of discovery; now I am a step or two removed. And the funding issue never really goes away. You have to convince people, whether they are donors or industry management, that what you are doing is meaningful and worth the money. It is just done in a different way. It is not easier.
I do think I am putting my research experience to better use now, however. I am able to influence drug discovery and development, and encourage collaboration among scientists on those front lines.