So You Want to Be a… Medical Science Liaison (MSL)

By Sally Burn, PhD

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Alexandria Wise, PhD about her job as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). It should be noted that she deserves special recognition for being so understanding in the face of an epic technological mess-up on my end. But then this personable nature is one of the traits, along with excellent communication skills, that make her a successful MSL. If you too are as good with people as you are with proteins, a career as an MSL could be the post-PhD path for you. Here’s the lowdown on this exciting career:

 

Hi Alexandria, so what does a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) do?

At its core, an MSL provides medical data to Health Care Professionals (HCPs) about a specific pharmaceutical drug product. An MSL is basically a library of knowledge for all groups who might be interested in a specific disease state or drug. I work for Sanofi-Genzyme in their Multiple Sclerosis (MS) division. My job is to know everything about our MS drugs, from clinical data to disease state information. When you’re in grad school you have four years to learn everything; here it’s much more intense, you have six months for training before you are put into the field. Following your training, you basically give what equates to a defense on the product. At this presentation, you are questioned by upper management to see how well you do under pressure and, more importantly, how well you know your stuff. We’ve got two MS drugs at the moment, and both are just amazing. Patients on our products are able to have a better overall quality of life, their MS is controlled and they can do things they couldn’t before. That’s a wonderful feeling.

 

In grad school you can work on a protein for four years, finally find out it tethers to the membrane… and then everyone outside your niche is like: so what? What you just described is a very different level of outcome.

Absolutely! I mean I used to work on ubiquitination and I thought everyone should be interested in it, but I talk to MDs and they’ve never heard of it. You spend so much time on a problem but then is anyone going to read your paper? Maybe some people but unless you are doing translational research then it’s probably only people in your very specific field of research. This is a problematic outcome of scientific research. I talk to doctors, nurses, physician assistants and answer their questions. And I love the variety because everyone’s perspective on the field of MS is different.

 

Can you tell us about three things you’re currently working on?

Right now I’m driving to have a quick discussion with an MD on some research that was carried out in like the late ‘90s, early 2000s that’s still relevant today. One thing about being an MSL is that we are on the road often or spend many hours traveling and you can’t always pick up a journal article to read. So, with the support of Sanofi-Genzyme, I’ve produced a podcast for MSLs, so we can learn about cutting edge research while we are traveling and reading isn’t convenient. I also work with doctors who carry out scientific research. Right now I’m working with one MD who’s working on functional MRI and neuronal metabolism in patients who are on one of our drugs.

 

You mentioned the amount of travel, so leading on from that, what are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

Understatement of the year, there is a lot of traveling! I cover New York and Long Island and I drive a lot. But also there are a lot of meetings that take place internally and externally (i.e. annual conferences) so I fly a lot too. My least favorite thing would be the scheduling and how it gets disrupted easily. I may be in Albany in the morning and then have to drive at a moment’s notice to Long Island. But often it’s because a HCP needs the information to give the best possible care to their patient and that’s fine, that’s what I’m here for, and I’m willing to drop everything to address that. My favorite – I’m very independent and so being an MSL works great with that. I talk to my boss, maybe once a week and I see him even less, maybe every quarter. Other than that I make my own schedule and decide what I do. And I know I’ll get it done. Some people aren’t suited to that – they need hand-holding for each step, and that doesn’t work out so well. But of course being a PhD you’re already suited to this because you know how to work alone, decide what needs doing, and manage your time.

 

Other than the needs to be independent, willing to travel, and outgoing – are there any other key skills required for this job?

A lot of the soft skills you’ll already have from your PhD. You are constantly working with people you’ve never met before but your goal is to develop a relationship with these HCPs. Being able to read body cues or other non-verbal cues are highly necessary for this job. It may not sound like a huge deal but when you are in a business meeting, being able to recognize and adjust your message, so that the audience receives your message better is the difference between being asked back for another meeting or never seeing that person again.

 

How did you get to where you are now? What is your educational and science background?

For my undergraduate I double majored in neuroscience and psychology. I did my undergrad at Ohio Wesleyan University; it’s a small liberal arts college. Then for grad school I went to Northwestern but transferred to City University in New York to complete my PhD in neuroscience. I then did my postdoc at Columbia, working in the pathology department on the ubiquitination pathway in neurons. I also represented postdocs on a Columbia committee and helped set up a New York wide postdoc society. But you know what it’s like, it’s expensive being a postdoc in New York and so I started exploring jobs outside of academia. All I kept hearing was “consulting, consulting” so I thought I’d give that a try. It took nine months from starting to look for a job to leaving the lab. I started working as a consultant for a small company and… yeah, I wasn’t that happy. Some projects were great, like this one diabetes project where we took one aspect of the drug – that it stayed in the system longer than competitors’ – and spun it to be the positive selling point. So if you forget to take it one day, it’s not the end of the world, your blood sugar isn’t going to plummet. That was how we sold it. A lot of it is about branding. But then there were other projects which had nothing to do with science and it just wasn’t for me.

I started reaching out to friends to see if anyone knew of any jobs going. I will say right now – LinkedIn is your friend! It is so useful, I cannot emphasize that enough. I messaged one of my friends on LinkedIn to ask if he knew of any jobs at Sannofi-Genzyme, where he worked. He was like “this is amazing, yes, we have two positions we’re looking to fill right now”. So I did an over-the-phone interview with my now boss, then a month later I was in Boston for an interview with the whole team from the Northeast, and a month after that I learned I got the job.

 

I was going to ask what your advice would be to a PhD wanting to become an MSL, but it sounds like the advice is LinkedIn!

Yes, absolutely, LinkedIn and networking! What I did was to email people at companies I was interested in. There’s the route of submitting your resume via an online application but honestly if you want someone to notice you, email the person who’ll be your co-worker or an HR person personally. Also, you have all these connections currently at grad school but they’re going to move on and make new connections and then you will have a whole new set of people you can reach out to. It’s such a useful resource. Even now I still get maybe three or four messages every week asking if I want to go transfer to their company. It’s crazy. But I’m happy where I am right now.

 

That brings me to the next question: what kind of positions do MSLs move on to?

There are various levels you can move up through. My friend who I messaged about the job initially, he is now medical director. Another option is moving into medical communications. They prepare scientific data for presentation on posters or in brochures for a pharmaceutical company about the products. And some people move across to consulting. There are lots of options and, like I said, I get offers every day to move companies. It’s a big field right now and the number of MSLs in the US is increasing.

 

So is the field expanding? What major changes do you see happening to the MSL field in the next ten years?

It’s going to continue to expand, very much so. At Sannofi-Genzyme the US territory used to be just carved up into four large areas, having one MSL for each region but now we have grown to 38 MSLs for the US. I cover New York and Long Island, and there’s another MSL just for Manhattan and Brooklyn. The job opportunities are only increasing. And I think now PhDs are beginning to become aware of it as a career. Previously it was just PharmDs who knew what an MSL was.

So I think as a whole the field is growing. But you should be aware of the lifecycle of the product you’re dealing with because if you work on a drug that’s been out for a while, soon it’ll be off patent and then go generic. In the US, most drugs go off patent in 10-15 years. At that point your company may downsize because other companies are also making your drug and data on the drug is more readily available. But there will be other MSL jobs you can fill elsewhere. And it’s a great job, the benefits are excellent. I don’t mind saying my salary, I earn around $130k and a brand new car but that’s not including the other benefits like an annual bonus. All my travel is covered, I have an Amex. At the consulting job, I started at $70k but that was at a small firm.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

Mmmm… yeah. I miss going to an interesting talk and having conversations about research. If I talk about ubiquitination to one of my MDs, they’re not going to know what it is, whereas I think everyone should be working on it – it’s the trash can of the cell! And I miss seeing cool stuff down the microscope. I used to work on neurons, so that was cool. But other than that… no, I’m good with where I am now!

 

OK, the final, most important question: in the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would an MSL bring to the table?

There are definitely two types of zombies: fast-moving ones from 28 Days Later or the slower mob-like ones from Walking Dead. If you’re talking about full-on 28 Days Later type zombie apocalypse, MSLs would be useful as we know all about density, of where people are located because of all the travel we do. So we would know where it’s safer to be (i.e. less dense areas of people). And we know where all the remote clinics are, hidden away in woods. If these were like Walking Dead type slow zombies… I mean, come on, you can walk faster than them! Just walk fast! But I guess in that situation where you have a group of survivors coming together, MSLs would be really good at working with all different types of people and managing the balance/harmony within a group of survivors to build something constructive (i.e. a wall). I still can’t believe no one ever met a construction worker as a survivor on one of these shows! I live in NYC, there are millions of them!

 

Your Teleportation Dream Might Be a Reality Soon

Scotty, pleaaaase beam me up…

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Jokes aside… well, I can’t stop myself for writing “Scotty, beam me up”, teleportation has already been done with atoms, photons and ions, for example in Universities in China, Germany and Maryland. Are you surprise by all this examples? The process of quantum teleportation of multiple degrees of freedom of a single photon has been done at the University of Science and Technology of China last year. They performed a free-space, ground level link measuring approx. 100 km across the Qinghai Lake in China with high fidelity. The official name of the protocol is “long distance quantum teleportation with polarization qubits” (or quantum bit is the analogue of a “bit” of information). A second group from China has plans to create a quantum space communications system by sending to space a satellite that could facilitate quantum teleportation of photons between earth and space.

Other successful story in teleportation was performed using optical modes. Lee and collaborators generated an EPR state by using two degenerate optical parametric oscillators and a balanced beam splitter. The EPR paradox is a fundamental concept introduced by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (their last names initial gave the name to this theory) back in 1935. They claimed that the wave function, as the representation of a particular pure quantum state, does not provide a complete description of the physical reality. Also, quantum teleportation with matter has been performed by other group using atomic ensembles of caesium atoms at room temperature, showing light-to-matter teleportation of a coherent state of an optical mode into a collective atomic spin. More than 13 years ago, Gao and collaborators, performed the amazing quantum teleportation from a propagating photon to a solid-state spin qubit, by exiting a neutral quantum dot onto the electron spin of a charged second quantum dot. So they were the first ones who teleported a photonic frequency qubit.  These advances in quantum teleportation are the Holy Grail for the “real” teleportation that we are all crossing fingers to be bring to our everyday world soon…hopefully very soon.

Moreover, these advances in teleportation technology opened the talk to pass to the next frontier: the teleportation of a live organism. The good news on this topic were published in Science at the beginning of this year. Two physicist from China, Tongcang Li and Zhang-qi Yin, propose to put a microorganism with a mass much smaller than the mass of the electromechanical membrane ( for example a bacterium) on top of an electromechanical membrane oscillator integrated with a superconducting circuit to prepare the quantum superposition state of a microorganism and teleport its quantum state. This tiny microorganism will not significantly affect the quality factor of the membrane and can be cooled to the quantum ground state together with the membrane. With a strong magnetic field gradient, the internal states of a microorganism, such as the electron spin of a glycine radical, can be entangled with its center-of-mass motion and be teleported to a remote microorganism. Since internal states of an organism contain information, this proposal provides a scheme for teleporting information between two remote organisms. Basically, what they described was a method to put a microorganism in two places at the same time, and provide a scheme to teleport the quantum state of a microbe (read more about it here). Unfortunately, all this is a just a great theory so far…

Sadly, as an Aprils fool joke, a really good one, the US army reported that they had teleported 9 soldiers from Massachusetts to Germany (here is the funny full article). They remained me that the term “teleportation” has coined by and American author Charles Port in 1931, he was a researcher of anomaly phenomena, phenomena that fall outside of existing understanding.

Recently, German researches from the Institute of Applied Physics at the University of Jena reported the Implementation of quantum and classical discrete fractional Fourier transforms, which represented a huge advance toward teleportation. Back in 2014, they had already generated of a new class of optical beams that are radially self-accelerating and non-diffracting. These beams continuously evolve on spiraling trajectories while maintaining their amplitude and phase distribution in their rotating rest frame. Also check out the fun article in Nature title “photonics: random sudoku light”, were the same authors described how they have imprinted on the laser beam a phase pattern that corresponds to numerical solutions to overlapping sodukus.  Translated to “normal” humans it means that they teleported elementary particles (light particles and electrons) in a “spatially delocalized state,” which allows them to be in two separate places at the same time. Oh Germans, such a bunch of funny people… at least in science related fields.

Mr. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal, wants to build a high-speed tube service Hyperloop which is capable of travelling around 700 mph. He is targeting to make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco as short as 30 min using this “as close as you can get to teleportation” system. Let me leave you with a geeky quote from the book Endure by Carrie Jones: “We teleported,” Issie finishes. “Like in Star Trek or Harry Potter, sort of. No! Like in Dr. Who in that episode with the Sontarans and the brilliant human boy, or really any Dr. Who ever if you think of the Tardis! Holy canola! That is just the coolest thing ever! Wowie, wow, wow!”

 

So You Want to Be a… Tech Founder

By Sally Burn, PhD

Do you spend as much time thinking about the amazing idea you have for a startup company as you do about your experiments? If so a post-PhD career as a startup founder may be in your future. We chatted to Rudy Bellani, founder of tech startup Oystir, a company which matches PhDs to suitable jobs based on their skills, about his career transition from neuroscientist to CEO and asked how our readers can also make the jump.

 

Hi Rudy! So what exactly does a Tech Founder do?

What my function is at the company is completely dependent on the skills I have and the challenges I want to take on. For me, usually, it’s working with developers, recruiters and marketers to achieve a specific end. I function some days as a marketer, some days as a UX (User Experience) designer, some days as a recruiter, some days as a manager, some days as a grunt; it’s just totally dependent on the day. You do everything – you can’t be above doing something. What a founder does is also totally dependent on the company you start, so there’s a very big difference between a technology startup and a biotech startup from the standpoint that in one you might be really focused on say procuring a CRO (Contract Research Organization) and working with scientists in a wet lab setting.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I did my neuroscience PhD at Rockefeller University in New York City and then went right after to McKinsey & Company to be a consultant. I spent two and a half years there and then jumped from McKinsey to start my own company, convinced one of my best friends at McKinsey to join me, and then we found some technical friends to join. The thing is that looking at that journey you might think that I got here because I learned business at McKinsey. The truth is I didn’t learn a lot at McKinsey that’s directly applicable to what I’m doing, even though that’s what I thought I was doing. I knew I wanted to start a company back in my grad school days but I frankly just needed money. I was so broke and I just needed to have a real job for a little while. So how I got here was I just wanted to do it and then just got brave enough to do it.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job? Did you develop any of them during your PhD?

It’s a lot of soft skills: perseverance, grit, and a lot of hustle. For my particular role as the CEO and the guy who cobbled together the team, there’s a lot of salesmanship. You just have to sell people on what you’re doing. You have to sell them to quit their jobs; you have to sell investors to invest in you when they shouldn’t. You’re just constantly selling. In terms of where I got those skills, I think half of it was my childhood. The other half are all of the foundational traits that led me, like most, to grad school – i.e. being someone who is willing to take on a high risk, high reward project, who is willing to be alone at the forefront of something and believe in it, when everybody else thinks it’s a crappy idea. Somebody who is able to persevere for a long time bashing their head against the wall with no seeming positive results. Somebody who loves ideas and is able to create their own path to an idea. People that like to work alone or in very small teams on things they are very passionate about… those feel like the sort of very foundational traits to doing this job. People who tend to go to grad school tend to have a lot of those traits.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

A startup is such a high risk endeavor that wherever you can derisk it you should and there are some easy places for people to do derisk ventures. Taking advantage of our time in grad school or in our postdoc to start working on ventures makes a ton of sense because even if we leave the lab at 8pm every day, that still gives you a handful of hours. Many of us aren’t married, don’t have kids; so you have spare time and you can use that to work on a venture to see if it takes off. Even if you do have a family, as I did, there is space within the day to daydream, go on Facebook or read Reddit – time that can be appropriated for bigger adventures. I know many grad students who have already followed that model, many that eventually quit MD/PhDs, PhDs, postdocs, even professorships once their business took off. Doing it in parallel makes a ton of sense. Or, again in parallel, apply to accelerator programs. They effectively give you a chunk of cash and they help you.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

My top three tasks to do right now are: firstly, check in with candidates. We have a bunch of PhDs who are in the interview process at various companies, so I need to check in with them to see how things are going and if they need help preparing. Another task is setting up a bunch of school visits, between two and six schools each month. And another task is that we are right now in the process of launching our resume service. We’ve rolled it out to maybe a third of our users to test, and it’s gone really well so now we’re rolling it out to the rest.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

My favorite parts about the job are feeling that your work really matters – if I don’t show up the company dies – feeling like you’re working on something you really care about and having a tremendous amount of flexibility. Throughout the process I had a kid, moved cities, and that made me change my schedule; sometimes I started later, sometimes I worked from home – and that flexibility has been really helpful for my own personal life. My least favorite aspect is that there’s no stability. Your company could die every week. If key people quit, your company is dead. If investors back out, you’re dead. If you fall out of love with the company, you’re dead. You are just so vulnerable because it’s this tiny group of humans doing this very focused thing. It’s hard work. The other is just how many administrative things there are… I’m not a detail oriented person, and thank god that I have Zach Marks, one of my co-founders, he’s this tremendously talented guy I met a Mckinsey who joined the company. But there are just a billion things that you need to do as a real company. Like have workers compensation, payroll, taxes… there’s a thousand minor things and they just suck. With great power comes great responsibility!

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

I LOVED doing science. I even started grad school early in order to get started right away. Since Rockefeller didn’t have housing for me yet I slept underneath my lab bench, on the tile floor, for three months. When I eventually got a job at McKinsey I felt like a quitter, a failure, and was embarrassed. Eight months into that job, I was on a post-academia panel for neuroscientists as the consultant representative and this same question was asked and I answered, to my amazement, “no, I don’t miss anything about academia.” I love the business side of things. We forget sometimes that what drew us into science was that we are intensely curious human beings who love to build and create things. Building organizations has a lot of that too.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

I think that we’re going to see more and more people jumping from academia to start their companies, because it’s just getting easier and easier to do. Already we’re seeing there is a really rapidly developing pipeline for grad students and postdocs to jump from academia to a biotech startup. There’s already a ton of programs for that and I think that will only grow, especially because right now a lot of that growth is based in Boston and San Francisco, and it’s just starting to catch up in New York. And certainly other schools all over the country have started to pick this up. It’s so useful having well worn track records where students can look and say five or six grad students from my department have done this, one of them has become really successful, three of them ended up getting a job… you need pioneers. But what there isn’t a lot of energy for right now is people leaving academia to start non-science based companies. And I would be part of that group to some degree. But I think that as more people become aware that they can do all kinds of different companies, I think that that will grow. And again that will be shaped by there being examples of people who can mentor and help individuals, because it’s really scary to go from something that is very structured to jump into something that isn’t. You can work out of a box under a bridge, no one cares, no one’s thinking about you.

 

What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

PhDs who start their own companies, where they tend to go is to be a manager in a bigger company of their type. So, people that start their own biotech companies and fail – which almost everybody does – pretty rapidly join manager level positions in larger biotechs. That’s almost overwhelmingly what happens. You have a biotech startup of three or four people, you do that for two or three years, it fails, then you go join a fifty person biotech company; you go in as manager. You’ve already worked with CROs and done x-y-and-z, and a lot of those accomplishments are very much rewarded. Then for non-science startup founders, they tend to do the exact same thing. The point is you build expertise in an area and that expertise is valued, and the traits that leads someone to start their own venture are very valued – the risk taking, the chasing your dreams, the go out there and do it yourself mentality – which leads to people being snapped up very quickly.

 

Finally, the all-important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a Tech Founder bring to the table?

The startup founder is more likely to be the raider, they will get together a small group of weirdos who will go off into the wasteland and come back with treasure… or will die. Just like a startup.


For some expert advice on the post-PhD job hunt, check out Rudy’s guest posts on penning a winning resume and why the executive summary is the most important item on your resume.

How Low Can You Go? Designing a Minimal Genome

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

How many genes are necessary for life? We humans have 19,000 – 20,000 genes, while the water flea Daphnia pulex has over 30,000 and the microbe Mycoplasma genitalium has only 525. But how many of these genes are absolutely required for life? Is there a minimum number of genes needed for a cell to survive independently? What are the functions of these essential genes? Researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics, Inc., set out to explore these questions by designing the smallest cellular genome that can maintain an independently replicating cell. Their findings were published in the March 25th version of Science.

The researchers started with a modified version of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome, which contains over 900 genes. Mycoplasmas are simplest cells capable of autonomous growth, and their small genome size provides a good starting point for building minimal cells. To identify genes unnecessary for cell growth, the team used Tn5 transposon mutagenesis, in which a piece of mobile DNA is introduced to the cells and randomly “jumps” into the bacterial chromosome, thereby disrupting gene function. If many cells were found to have the transposon inserted into the same gene at any position in the gene sequence, and these cells were able to grow normally, the gene was considered non-essential, since its function was not required for growth; such genes were candidates for deletion in a minimal genome. In some genes, the transposon was only found to insert at the ends of the genes, and cells with these insertions grew slowly; such genes were considered quasi-essential, since they were needed for robust growth but were not necessary for cell survival. Genes which were never found to contain the transposon in any cells were considered essential, since cells that had transposon insertions in these genes did not survive; these essential genes were required in the minimal genome.

The researchers then constructed genomes with various combinations of non-essential and quasi-essential gene deletions using in vitro DNA synthesis and yeast cells. The synthetic chromosomes were transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum, replacing its normal chromosome with the minimized genome. If the M. capricolum survived and grew in culture, the genome was considered viable. Some viable genomes, however, caused the cells to grow too slowly to be practical for further experiments. The team therefore had to find a compromise between small genome size and workable growth rate.

The final bacterial strain containing the optimized minimal genome, JCVI-syn3.0, had 473 genes, a genome smaller than any autonomously replicating cell found in nature. Its doubling time was 3 hours, which, while slower than the 1 hour doubling time of the M. mycoides parent strain, was not prohibitive of further experiments.

What genes were indispensable for an independently replicating cell? The 473 genes in the minimal genome could be categorized into 5 functional groups: cytosolic metabolism (17%), cell membrane structure and function (18%), preservation of genomic information (7%), expression of genomic information (41%), and unassigned or unknown function (17%). Because the cells were grown in rich medium, with almost all necessary nutrients provided, many metabolic genes were dispensable, aside from those necessary to effectively use the provided nutrients (cytosolic metabolism) or transport nutrients into the cell (cell membrane function). In contrast, a large proportion of genes involved in reading, expressing, replicating, and repairing DNA were maintained (after all, the presence of genes is of little use if there is no way to accurately read and maintain them). As the cell membrane is critical for a defined, intact cell, it’s unsurprising that the minimal genome also required many genes for cell membrane structure.

Of the 79 genes that could not be assigned to a functional category, 19 were essential and 36 were quasi-essential (necessary for rapid growth). Thirteen of the essential genes had completely unknown functions. Some were similar to genes of unknown function in other bacteria or even eukaryotes, suggesting these genes may encode proteins of novel but universal function. Those essential genes that were not similar to genes in any other organisms might encode novel, unique proteins or unusual sequences of genes with known function. Studying and identifying these genes could provide important insight into the core molecular functions of life.

One of the major advancements resulting from this study was the optimization of a semi-automated method for rapidly generating large, error-free DNA constructs. The technique used to generate the genome of JCVI-syn3.0 allows any small genome to be designed and built in yeast and then tested for viability under standard laboratory conditions in a process that takes about 3 weeks. This technique could be used in research to study the function of single genes or gene sets in a well-defined background. Additionally, genomes could be built to include pathways for the production of drugs or chemicals, or to enable cells to carry out industrially or environmentally important processes. The small, well-defined genome of a minimal cell that can be easily grown in laboratory culture would allow accurate modeling of the consequences of adding genes to the genome and lead to greater efficiency in the development of bacteria useful for research and industry.