BSI member, Mihil Patel, finished his PhD at Cardiff University last year and has since taken up the role of Research Scientist at GammaDelta Therapeutics. Here, he discusses how he found the transition from working in academia to industry and what he’s learnt as a result.
Viva day. Ironic that three and a half years of toil would be condensed into as many hours (3h 53min to be precise – my Chair timed it and thought nothing of taking candid pictures of me during the whole process). The success was followed with the post-viva formalities – corrections, dinners, smugness. Reality quickly crashed down on me, as I’d bled my supervisors dry of temporary funding. I needed a job. It was time to put an end to this extended state of adolescence.
Taking the plunge into industry
I was straight on to the job pages of big pharma companies, LinkedIn and recruitment agencies. It was clear from the get-go – now is a good time to be an immunologist. With immunotherapies being pushed hard by companies small and large, there were plenty of opportunities for someone straight out of a PhD with a range of cellular and molecular biology techniques.
To cut a long story short, the main reason for leaving academia was that I wanted to apply my skills learnt during my PhD in viral immunology in a more tangible way. After several Skype and faceto-face interviews, I accepted a position at GammaDelta Therapeutics. I had a fairly good idea of what I was getting into: a full-on cellular immunotherapy company. Exactly what I wanted. The company is still new, having only been spun out of King’s College London and the Francis Crick Institute in 2016. As such, there’s a mix of an academic and company culture, and there’s still emphasis on keeping up with the traditions of academia such as publishing papers, collaborations and attending conferences. This is something that I was keen to understand at my interview as I was motivated to join a company driven by science.
That was a main deciding factor in accepting my current position over my offers from other companies. Whereas the primary focus of the company is to explore the potential of gamma delta T cells in a clinical setting, the company also dedicates resources to understanding the biology behind gamma delta T cells, ensuring that we are contributing to the wider scientific field too. It’s no surprise that the company has hired from world-leading gamma delta and immunology labs, and there is no shortage of expertise at all levels of the company. Dr Paolo Paoletti, Dr Natalie Mount and Dr Michael Koslowski, our CEO, CSO and CMO respectively, have years of experience in academia between them prior to moving into industry themselves, ensuring that that the company maintains its scientific rigour while driving hard to develop potential therapies.
Strict standards and electronic lab books
One aspect that I really value is how the workload is often shared between colleagues. As most of us can attest, almost all experiments during a PhD are solo efforts, regardless of how small and large. Here though, the work is very collaborative. If a large experiment is conceived, then the work is planned and executed by several scientists ensuring it’s performed faster and more efficiently.
Unlike in academia, where a lab book entry can be minimalist, or non-existent, biotech companies use electronic lab books in which data is entered so that colleagues across different sites can access it and reproduce the experiment as needed.
This also allows traceability and time-stamped entries, which is important when considering the filing of patent applications. As our goal is to have a product in the clinic, many of the reagents we use in our preclinical studies need to adhere to strict standards to meet the guidelines of regulatory bodies. This means keeping strictly to use-by dates or sometimes using GMP grade materials and reagents. It’s for the same reason that some experiments are planned and executed to answer specific questions (referred to as data packages), rather than out of sheer academic curiosity. I knew this would be the case before coming to industry, but for me this is a good thing as before it was all too easy to let ideas snowball into huge experiments, which wouldn’t always work due to workload management.
Adapting to demands
It’s true what you’ve most likely heard; in industry you need to be flexible. If certain projects need more resources, then colleagues will be drafted in from other areas to help at short notice. However, as a stoic optimist, I see this as an opportunity to learn something new and build my skill set. Lastly as this is a company, with boards and shareholders, there’s a set of business lingo which is always thrown around and roots itself into the office vernacular (‘offline’ meetings anyone?). Of course, there are things that can’t easily be replaced by moving out of academia. The flexibility of academia meant I was free to do a lot of outreach work at schools and festivals, which abruptly came to an end.
Gone is the overt informality. I’m in a professional environment; I don’t walk around the office without shoes anymore or wear a bandana, and I even set an alarm in the morning.
I’ve become more organised since starting here which is necessary as the company currently operates across two different sites in London. Most biotechs are based around Oxford, Cambridge and London so if this is a decision you are considering, then you need to consider setting your sights towards said ‘Golden Triangle’. This was tough for me as I’d become an adopted son of Wales during my PhD and was part of such a friendly lab, which I’m still in touch with.
Science is science
At the end of the day science is science. I still put the right controls into my experiment, I still attend weekly lab meetings and I still sing out loud when no one else is in the lab. The learning curve at first was steep, but this would have been the case if I was to do postdoc anywhere else. Moving from academia to industry is not something I regret. What I miss about academia is specific to my experience and circumstances during my PhD. As with academic labs, I suspect that all biotechs are different and have their own quirks and ways of working, though I feel quite fortunate to have landed on my feet here at GammaDelta Therapeutics.