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Spreading your Postdoc Wings in Industry

Anna Moraitis (pictured left) recognized early on in her doctoral studies at McGill University that she probably wouldn't be following the academic route after graduation. She yearned to get hands-on experience to broaden her knowledge by working on applied problems. So when the time came to choose the next step in her career, Moraitis decided to do a postdoc, but not the usual kind in academia. Moraitis chose a postdoc in industry.

One year later, Moraitis is midway through her postdoc at a Montreal-based biotech firm that specializes in the development of therapeutic treatments for bone diseases, and she feels great about the way her career is heading. Moraitis spends her days at the bench identifying and characterizing specific target genes that play a role in degradation of bone tissue. Her job is to take some of these promising targets and try to understand their role and function, searching all the while for some kind of therapeutic value to them.

Potential for therapeutic solutions

"I get the chance to work everyday on projects that are going to be directly linked to human diseases and have the potential to become therapeutic solutions," says Moraitis. "That's what drives this industry, and that's what appeals so much to me."

Helping kick-start careers in industry for early career scientists is the aim of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada's (NSERC) Industrial Research Fellowship (IRF) program. For Moraitis, an IRF fellowship was the key factor in landing her position at Alethia Biotherapeutics and getting her career off on the right foot.

Moraitis made contact with the company through her Ph.D. supervisor. They were interested, but because of the small size of the firm and limited resources, the main catch was funding. Moraitis was required to find her own money. NSERC was the answer.

While the application process was a bit complicated, the majority of the paperwork was done by the host company. NSERC requires the industrial applicant to provide a company profile, explaining in great detail the project the postdoc would be involved in, including month-by-month timelines. Meanwhile, postdoc-fellowship candidates need to give a rundown of their scientific achievements, their career goals, and why they are qualified to do a postdoc at the prospective company. The two sections are then sent to NSERC as a package. In Moraitis's case, the process took a little over a month to send it off. Three months later, she had a response.

For Moraitis, the most challenging part in applying for the IRF was having to sell her abilities and justify herself to NSERC. "You basically have to tell them that you're ready to do independent research; because as a postdoc you're not going to be held by the hand anymore," she says. Luckily, her Ph.D. supervisor encouraged her to attend conferences, apply for awards and grants, and get some publications. All were critical in making her a superior candidate for the IRF fellowship. "All that validates you . . . if someone looks at your CV, they can't tell if you work well on the bench. The only thing that they can look at is what's on paper; its all about publications, fellowships, and meetings."

Staying motivated and interested in her research was a big reason for wanting to leave the academic bubble. The chance to work on state-of-the-art equipment, explore a variety of fields every day, and work in a fast paced environment appealed to her, and industry offered just that.

Industrial research isn't for everyone. In academia, the process and the pace of doing science is quite different than it usually is in industry. There is often time to go off the path and explore. "Most of the time you may be working on unknown genes and pathways, simply to understand them better." In a corporate lab -- the one she works in, anyway -- there is no time to explore topics just because they're interesting. "You have to think that when you do an experiment, that it costs money and that there are definite deadlines."

Regulating the publication flow

Another drawback that prospective IRF candidates need to be aware of is that in corporate science, the flow of scientific publications is often regulated. For those whose top priority is not to publish as much as possible, an industrial postdoc can work well. But "for people who didn't produce many papers during their Ph.D. and want their years as a postdoc to publish, then industry may not be the best place."

Working in industry has other risks. In Quebec at least, Moraitis sees some tough times ahead for the biotech industry. Over the last few years many companies have been making cuts, and investments are dropping. Investors looking for a quick return on their investments, Moraitis believes, are often impatient with the slow process of product development. "Unfortunately this science doesn't work that way; getting newly identified genes into drugs can take over two years."

Moraitis believes that a postdoc in industry is a great move for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire for practical, hands-on experience. At the halfway mark of the fellowship, Moraitis has more confidence in herself, and feels that she can start to spread her wings a bit.

"[The fellowship] gave me the chance to figure out whether this is what I like, and it has also given my employer a chance to get to know me as well," she explains. "But more importantly, I feel that my postdoc experience has finally given me professional independence and a sense of value and purpose as a scientist."

For more information on the Industrial Research Fellowship, visit NSERC's Web site.

And check out Next Wave's profile article on the Industrial Research Postdoc Fellowship Program.

Andrew Fazekas is the Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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