Dr. Mikey Creane (ISCT- Early Stage Professionals Committee)
Regenerative Medicine Institute
University of Galway
Dr. Rachel Burga (ISCT-Early stage Professionals Committee-Co Chair)
On the 24th of January 2023, the ISCT-Early Stage Professionals (ESP) Committee hosted an ISCT, member exclusive, Virtual Career Panel Event. This event was sponsored by the ISCT-ESP Mentoring Group of the committee and was co-hosted by Dr. Rachel Burga (ISCT-ESP Committee Co-Chair) and Dr. Mikey Creane (ISCT-ESP Committee). The event started with a warm welcome from Dr. Rachel Burga, who nicely set the scene on the topic of the event, which was on highlighting different career paths, workforce needs, and skillsets required for a career in the cell and gene therapy (C>) field. In advance of the event, attendees who signed up had the opportunity to send in any specific questions that they would like to hear discussed. Rachel thanked the participants for doing so and highlighted that the discussion would have a focus around the submitted questions. With that, the co-hosts handed it over to the panellist to introduce themselves to the audience. Dr. Geetha Mylvaganam, Dr. Christopher Bravery, Dr. Steven Feldman and Dr. Rebecca Lim provided wonderful insight into each of their careers to date. The vast experience of the panellist in multiple different sectors such as academia, industry, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), regulatory and independent consulting re-affirmed why these panel members were a great fit for this important panel discussion.
The discussion began with what the panellists viewed as important skills that ESPs should have or be in the process of developing in order to have a career in the C> field. Understanding the science, strong knowledge of immunology, and critical thinking was all underscored as important skills to have. Other skills, such as time management and understanding prioritization were also highlighted as very important. Here’s what one speaker shared as an example of prioritization skills: “whilst researchers can generate large amounts of data, it is important for one to understand and prioritize what is impactful data, and what you can learn or pull from that data that will inform strategic decision making”. Other skills that the panellists highlighted as being useful as ESPs enter into the field were direct practical experience on bioassays, and bioanalytical techniques, specifically in the context of the job at hand. Additionally, any formal training in Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and batch record development and validation to an industry standard would serve an ESP well in their career, whether in academia or industry.
However, the overall topic of this discussion focused on the question that one should first ask themselves. And that is, ‘what do I want to do in my career?’ Once answered, a trainee will know where best to direct themself. For instance, are you a big-picture thinker or are you a detail person? This is important for you to know as you need to work to your own strengths to understand yourself.
The panellists were asked their perspective on what type of transferable skills they found the most helpful for them in their advanced careers and how ESPs can start going about acquiring some of these skills. It was highlighted that the ability to collaborate was a key quality, due to the fact that whether working in a small biotech company or in an academic setting, there will be frequent collaboration across teams for a common goal of developing a cell therapy product. For these reasons it is important to learn how to work with others effectively and efficiently, and how to engage by actively listening. But what advice did the panellists have to ESPs that aren’t already in collaborative environments? For example, ESPs who are in small labs or small biotech companies? How can they obtain management skills and what other opportunities could one avail of to build these types of skills? The panellists recommended that the best way to address this is to join an ISCT committee and attend conferences to network and engage with individuals to discuss your work.
It was a unanimous sentiment of the panel that communication is a key skill for an ESP to master! As a scientist, the only way to effectively be able to communicate is if you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you are leading a team of scientists, the best way of instilling confidence in your team is to have a full understanding of a project’s goals and to effectively communicate what is required from the team to reach these goals. The panellists acknowledged that some individuals may take to communication skills more naturally than others, but regardless of comfort level, it is important for trainees to continue to work on these skills and continue to gain self-confidence. Some ways that ESPs can build confidence and communication skills include presenting data to larger audiences, attending annual meetings/conferences in your field, and in general taking the initiative to talk to other scientists. Hand-in-hand with building this self-confidence is putting aside the fear of talking to new people, as well as the fear of making an incorrect statement or having a productive disagreement. The C> field is evolving every day and other scientists will challenge your data and opinion but it’s important to learn how to deal with that in a positive manner and be open to hearing other perspectives.
In addition to networking and oral communication, the panellists also emphasized that scientific communication in the form of writing skills were deemed extremely important. For example, writing SOPs, technical documents, and academic manuscripts all require different types of writing skills. Precision in language, accuracy, removing subjectivity these are all important writing skills to effectively communicate scientifically. Communication and the skills one can gain by being in collaborative environments really came across as the key themes of this discussion.
The topic of mentorship and mentoring those more junior in the field as well as peers was an interesting discussion. As ESPs develop leadership skills, it is important to emphasize that strong leadership requires an understanding a team’s individuality and dynamics. For example, knowing who the quiet achievers are and focusing in on each unique person to learn their individual talents. Knowing when to encourage and bring individuals into new roles is key. And importantly, learning how to spot when somebody is about to be overwhelmed. In learning a team’s individuality and understanding everyone’s unique talents you will be able more appropriately guide your team to achieve the project goals and therefore increase contribution across your organisation. Resource management, identifying project milestones with tracking of percentage progression and contingency planning were highlighted as important transferable skills that can be used in both academic and industry roles. These skills can and should be incorporated into ones curriculum vitae or resumé and be packaged and presented appropriately depending on the needs of your future employer, whether that be in industry or academia.
The next, and final part of the discussion focused on the panellist's perspectives and opinions on careers in academia versus industry and how to recruit and retain talent. We could have spent an additional hour on this engaging topic! The panel discussed that academic career paths outside of faculty positions certainly do exist in the C> field, but acknowledged that it was a continued challenge to communicate that these types of opportunities exist to new graduates, who maybe have a single-track mindset of ‘to have a career in academia one must obtain a PhD, complete post-doctoral training, publish a wealth of research articles and secure research funding before being considered for lecturing roles’. One way to improve the situation as members of the C> field could be a focused effort on communicating these career paths via organised seminars and symposiums, workforce development programs internships and certification programs for working with GMP facilities. Ultimately what an individual wants to do is largely dependent on them and knowing what’s out there and available to them. Bringing light to these career paths has to start early by introducing them into biotech courses and providing the students with the opportunities to attend and apply for these organised events. Ultimately it entirely comes down to the individual in what sector they want to choose for their career, academia or industry, as there are different pressures associated with both careers. For example academia is largely teaching-based, grant-driven and there can be a large amount of freedom to be curious with your research and innovate by tackling fundamental biological questions. Whereas in industry there may be freedom to explore outside of the company’s scope, and it is project oriented and focused but provides you with the resources and financial stability to develop project(s) long term. Choosing which career is suitable for you is largely down to what you want to achieve in your career. How does one know what they want to do? How can we determine the wood from the trees? Some key advice from one of our panel members was to write it down and have a 5 year plan. Furthermore, choose a job for you, not based on salary (to a degree in which your financial situation can tolerate) but based on the experience you want to get out of the job and if it allows you to get where you want to be in your career.
Whilst the panel and co-hosts could have ruminated for many more hours on careers and skillsets the session came to a close on the hour mark with Mikey Creane thanking the audience for their participation. Mikey also gave special thanks to his co-host Dr Rachel Burga, the panellists, Meagan Pasternak (ISCT Head Office) and the ISCT-ESP Mentoring Group all of which were instrumental in making this event possible.
If you couldn’t attend the ISCT-ESP Sponsored Event but you are interested to hear more of what was discussed, you can access the recording of the event here.