Ever since I can remember I wanted my job to have some kind of influence on human welfare. I could have been a medical doctor, but when the time came to choose my undergraduate studies, I decided to study microbiology and genetics at the Faculty of Sciences in Lisbon, Portugal, thinking that it was a way of curing diseases without having to deal with them directly.
I became interested in the molecular mechanisms behind cancer during a lecture from one of my university teachers about Ras, a type of enzyme of the GTPase family that is frequently mutated in different kinds of human malignancies. I decided to do my final year of undergraduate studies at the Curie Institute, in France, one of the best cancer research centres in Europe. I knew that in order to do research, it was good to go to a lab in a foreign country, because in Portugal resources were very limited at the time.
Good experience, but not enough
To be honest, that was not the only reason to do so. I had actually been thinking about living abroad for some time since I was 16. The opportunity to go to Paris came through the Erasmus programme. And although I was afraid, and didn't know a word in French, I thought that 6 months weren't that much of a risk! In the end, the lab work and the Parisian life ran so smoothly that I decided to stay in the same lab for a PhD on a small GTPase related to Ras. And during that time I became fluent in French.
Although I really liked what I was doing, it didn't fulfil me completely. I was getting frustrated at working on a little protein of unknown function that seemed to be important only to myself; and I didn't know if I wanted to do that all my life. But at the same time I thought that these feelings were mostly due to a hard research subject, and that it was frustration talking, rather than a dislike of the research subject itself.
Nevertheless, I tried to keep my mind opened to other things and took part in one of the " Doctoriales", a 1-week retreat for French PhD students from all scientific domains. The main goal of the Doctoriales is to help PhD students to identify their skills. We tend to believe that by doing research, the only thing we learn is to do research. This programme showed us that during the PhD we also learn how to communicate our results to others, such as how to address a problem and find solutions to it, how to work as a team, and establish short- and long-term goals.
The organisers, different universities and institutes hosting PhD students, also aim to help both students and employers to realise how important these skills can be in industry, and in that way "convince" both parties to get together. Of course, most of this is learned in a fun way; the students have the chance to visit a company and learn how it works, and also to develop a short business plan around a new idea, in order to address some issues important in industry (identifying the market for the product we have invented, suppliers, publicising the product, budgeting, etc). I really enjoyed that week, but, once back in the lab and immersed in my research project, everything gradually faded away.
At the end of my PhD I still believed that I could do basic research for a living. I decided to do a postdoc on the same scientific area at Imperial College, London. I had a great time and the project was very interesting, but with time the old feeling that basic research didn't suit me became stronger. I wanted my work to be important for mankind, and fundamental research didn't make me feel that.
That's when I decided that I wanted to give it a try in industry where I thought that research would be more directly applied to human health. Because I wanted to go back to France for personal reasons, and since the job market there in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies was really depressed, I took advantage of my Portuguese nationality to apply for a Marie Curie Industry Host Fellowship, one of the European Commission's funding schemes.
I had found out about these fellowships while looking for funding for my postdoc in London. Under this funding scheme, the company gets money from the EC for a postdoc or PhD student to work on a certain project. All that the scientist has to do is go to the EC's Web site and check for vacancies. Most companies also advertise their positions in scientific journals like Science or Nature.
Although it is a job in industry, it is still a postdoc, and I reasoned that this argument would allow me to go back to academia if the experience in industry didn't go well. But, on the other hand, if it did, the Marie Curie fellowship would be an easy way to get into industry, since most companies trying to fill vacancies look for people with industry experience. I applied to several of these positions, and I was very happy when I was accepted at Hybrigenics, a functional proteomics biotech in central Paris, to work in their oncology programme.
More precise research, greater speed, more interaction
What I found in industry was not as good as I expected; it was better! Hybrigenics' aim is to identify new therapeutic targets, and small molecule compounds that will modulate their activities, in order to develop anticancer drugs. I'm working in the target validation group. The research we do is much like the research I'm used to from academia (mainly cell and molecular biology), but here I can see its connection to human health more easily, because the validated targets are taken on by the drug discovery group in order to screen for small compounds.
The research goals in industry are more precise, but this does not restrain your creativity. For example, if you are asked to show if protein X is implicated in cancer and how, you can show it as you like. That is not much different from basic research, is it? However, if the protein comes out not to be important in cancer, no matter how interesting the protein itself is, the project is stopped. That is an issue that should be taken into account: Research projects change according to the company's interests, and you may find yourself working on something different the next day! Some people have a hard time coping with that, but I find it challenging!
We are a team of seven people: Exchange of ideas is really good and troubleshooting of your experiments is usually rapid. That is great; and quite different from what I was used to in academia, where I was the only one working on my project, other than my supervisor. Furthermore, in a small biotech like Hybrigenics you interact a lot with all your colleagues, and you get to know the activities of the business, production, drug discovery, and intellectual property departments very readily.
Also, in France, the law obliges companies to invest in the training of their employees, and in that way I got the opportunity to do a 2-day course on intellectual property and innovation, to learn some more about the interests, strategies, and laws behind patenting. In a way, by working in industry you get the chance to be multidisciplinary, which is good for your career.
But not everything is heaven. Usually, in industry you don't get to publish as much as in academia because secrecy is important. However, some companies, especially smaller ones, do publish part of their work, because it is a way of getting visibility. This is an important issue that one must keep in mind when changing from academia to industry, if you want to come back to academia one day. Furthermore, competition between companies is hard, and you may find yourself one day without a job, because the company has merged, been bought, or worst, closed down by the investors. If you cherish stability, by staying in academia you can have access to a permanent position. Another issue to bear in mind is that in industry you have tight deadlines for your research projects, with progress reports due every month, which can be quite stressful. But since the project and the deadlines have been proposed mainly by yourself, it is just a matter of being organised and keeping your word!
I'm in the middle of my 2-year Marie Curie contract, and for the moment I am really enjoying the industrial environment. Unfortunately the biotech job market is not great for biologists at the moment--chemists seem to be really fashionable right now!--so I'm not sure whether I will have the opportunity to stay in industry at the end of my contract. Nonetheless, I am sure that this experience will be a plus on my CV. I hope I was able to bring some light to your doubts if you are considering taking this step.