Job Spotlight: From Academia to Biotech: Interview with Holly Soutter, Principal Research Scientist in the Pharmaceutical Industry

September 20, 2016 | Kathryn Loydall

Holly Soutter, TSE Job Spotlight
Photo credit: Photo courtesy Holly Soutter, PhD

As part of our Job Spotlight series, we interviewed Holly Soutter, Principal Research Scientist at X-Chem Pharmaceuticals. Her best advice: “Be flexible and open to new opportunities even if that means deviating from your charted course.”

Her career path has taken her from chemistry to biochemistry, and from Structure-based Drug Design to managing a team of people at a biotech company. It’s no wonder that Dr. Holly Soutter has some invaluable advice for those looking to transition into a career in industry.

What does a principal research scientist in Industry do on a day-to-day basis?

Holly works as part of a multidisciplinary team of scientist who utilize the X-Chem DNA-encoded library platform to discover novel drug leads in multiple therapeutic areas: “My group is responsible for generating protein reagents for use in the platform, running the screens, analyzing the screening results and testing the identified binders in biochemical assays.”

After recently moving into a managerial position, a typical day at work involves spending a lot of time overseeing the work her group does in supporting the projects in the company’s portfolio. Dr. Soutter tells us: “I’m heavily involved in data analysis and communicating our results with internal and external project team members.”

Where did it all begin?

Having a positive impact on human health has always been important to Holly Soutter. When we asked Holly what influenced her to focus her career on biotechnology, she says: “I wanted to positively impact human health through my research and felt that working for a biotechnology company was the best way to do that. We can move discoveries to the clinic more quickly and efficiently to the clinic than larger companies can. I also enjoy being on the cutting edge of science and pushing the boundaries of what we can do.”

As for her career path, it was typical in some ways; she went from an undergraduate degree to graduate school to post-doc positions. However, at each stage she learned something new about herself and her skills to help her shift direction to end up where she is today.

Holly started out as a chemistry major as an undergrad but in graduate school she fell in love with biochemistry: “I wanted to work in a field where I could translate basic research into drug discovery. I had read about a newly emerging area called Structure-based Drug Design in which scientists used structural information about the interactions between proteins and drugs to design better drugs. It sounded really exciting so I joined a protein crystallography lab.”

After receiving her Ph.D., she did a postdoc in industry at what is now AbbVie: “I really enjoyed working in multidisciplinary teams and in drug discovery but wanted to try a postdoc in academia before making a final choice between industry and academia.”

Holly has experienced some truly rewarding experiences along her career path and her proudest career accomplishment took place while she was working as a postdoc for AbbVie: “I worked on a project that made it through the clinic and onto the market. As part of a company-wide celebration we watched a video about one of the patients that had been treated with our drug. They talked about the positive impact that the drug had made on their life and the lives of the people who loved them.  It was really rewarding to know that I had helped someone overcome a severe disability and lead a more fulfilling life.”

After AbbVie, Holly then completed a second post-doc in a crystallography lab at the Scripps Research Institute. However, while she really enjoyed her time there, she realized that her real passion was drug discovery and she took a job in industry with Pfizer.

After working in big pharma for almost 5 years, Holly then realized that she wanted to be in an environment where she could learn and grow more as a scientist and that a small biotech company would provide that opportunity: “Since joining X-Chem 5 years ago, I’ve learned assay development, new biophysical techniques, cell culture and about the DNA-encoded library platform we use at X-Chem.”

In the future, Holly would like to stay in biotech, and continue to discover new medicines that alleviate human suffering: “X-Chem is spinning out new companies focused on specific disease areas. I am heavily involved in one of those spin outs and will most likely take a leadership role in that company overseeing the scientific strategy. I would like to stay in the biotech space. I find the environment exciting and energizing.”

SEE ALSO: Job Spotlight: Could you see Yourself as a Professor?

Challenges along the way

Career transitions are rarely without their challenges. We asked Holly what some of those were: “I’m not in the lab as much anymore and I do miss being closely involved in the science. It can be challenging as a scientist to learn the soft skills needed to be an effective manager. I have a great mentor in my current supervisor who is always there to listen and give me advice. Now that I’m more closely associated with the business part of the company, I’m learning a lot about what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in negotiating collaborations between companies and generating project portfolios.”

And on what she misses about Academia, Holly tells us: “Research is academia is much more open. You are free to discuss your research with people outside your lab and outside your institution. In industry, your research is confidential. If you want to present at a meeting, you need to justify to your company why disclosing your research is beneficial. Things in industry are becoming more open now which is a good thing.”

Some of the skills she learned in Academia she found were easily transferrable to a career in industry: “During my second post-doc at Scripps, many of my projects involved outside collaborators or involved multiple people in my lab. By working with others, I learned how to communicate effectively and collaborate to achieve our common goals. I also helped train a graduate student which helped me learn management skills.”

As for success metrics in biotechnology, they can differ from Academia too: “My goals in my current role are aligned with the business goals of my company which are to enable our partners to discover new drugs. My success is measured by my contributions, both individually and as part of a team, to meeting those goals. My goal in academia was to generate publishable research results so my supervisor could get more grant money.”

Advice for transitioning into a career in biotechnology

We asked Holly what she looks for in people that she manages. She tells us that beyond the technical skills required, she looks for people who are self-motivated, can adapt quickly, can troubleshoot their experiments, communicate effectively with her and their peers, want to learn new things and people who would fit well with the corporate culture. These skills all strike us as adaptable skills that can be learned from various different roles.

Holly has some fantastic advice for those of you wanting to transition out of the lab: “If you have a supportive supervisor, discuss your career aspirations with them and the possibility of moving into a non-lab role within your current company or institution. If you are not comfortable discussing it with your current supervisor, try to identify someone outside your company that may be able to help you.  Ideally it would be someone working in a role you would be interested in.  Try to build up your non-technical skills which will be more important in a non-lab role (communication, running effective meetings, public speaking/presenting, managing teams).”

To transition into a career in biotechnology, Holly says the most important thing is to be open to change and adaptation: “You need to be willing to learn new things and wear multiple hats. You’ll work in a team setting so you need to be able communicate your results with scientists outside your area of expertise. It’s a lot of fun so go for it!”

Any other advice? “Talk to people who have careers you might be interested in and find out more about their jobs. You may find that the day-to-day reality is a lot different than you expected.  Work as an intern in a company so you can learn what the corporate world is really like before making a decision. Try to gain as much real-world experience as you can. Look for supportive mentors to guide you along the way.”

Finally, we asked: What do you wish someone had told you when you were getting started with your career?

“You envision your career path as a straight line from A to Z but along the way you will find that you really enjoy things you never expected to and really dislike things you thought you would love.  Be flexible and open to new opportunities even if that means deviating from your charted course.”

The Science Explorer would like to thank Dr. Holly Soutter for her time and great advice. We hope this can be of use to anyone thinking about a career in biotechnology!

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