May 27, 2014 | by Greg Cherryholmes
While many scientists have continued their career paths into industry, or stayed in academia, there are few who have been able to successfully traverse both arenas of research as well as David Webb. I recently had a discussion with Dr. Webb about some of the transitions that young scientists (graduate students and post-doctoral fellows) face when looking to enter positions in academia or industry.
GC: What was your biggest struggle that you faced transitioning from academia to biotech and then back again?
DW: Well, some luck entered into the process. I entered industry at a time when it was thought that academic scientists would be of value in industry (like everything else in life, it really depended on the individual). I left industry at a time when the line between industry research and academic research had blurred considerably with early drug discovery programs in academia being encouraged by NIH and drug screening programs appearing in university and research institutes including my own. Both of my current sponsoring colleagues at Scripps had founded several companies between them and had an appreciation for the difficulties in doing industrial research. They were very interested in the perspective that I had gained and felt that my presence in the lab might be of value to them, their students and post-docs. To date, that has turned out to be true in many interesting ways. Not only can I still do science (not at the bench!), but I have a role to play in addressing for my colleagues precisely the kind of questions you have raised.
GC: For someone who is in academia and is contemplating going into industry, what encouragement would you give them? What caveats would you give them?
DW: This is a question that I hear all the time from the students and post-docs with whom I work. The answer depends to some degree on the individual’s particular circumstances and interests. But, in general, one needs to identify the type of work that you think you would really enjoy doing, that is suitable to your background (don’t try to stretch into something you really are not qualified to do without first getting the training). Don’t be discouraged by the application process, which is very different from getting a post-doc position. Although having some connection into the company you want to join always helps, as is true for most post-doc jobs as well. These days, there are a lot of highly experienced scientists from industry looking for jobs due to the massive restructuring that has taking place in big pharma over the last 5 years. So, even with several years of post-doctoral research under your belt, you will not necessarily be first on the list even if you are qualified for a specific job.
More particularly, in biotech and pharma research these days, the single most valuable trait one needs is flexibility. Research programs can turn on a dime depending on non-science based factors such as what other companies (the competition) may be doing, new clinical data or on a management decision to change directions and/or drop a research program. Unlike academia, decisions involve multiple layers of management and these are often opaque to the researchers themselves. Most drug discovery programs these days are under very stringent time constraints such that significant delays for any reason can lead to the cancellation of the whole program. Also the success of most drug discovery programs these days are no longer judged by how many compounds they move into the clinic, but on whether those compounds are able to advance through the various phases of clinical development.
GC: For someone who is in industry and wants to go back to academia, what encouragement or caveats would you give them?
DW: Times are very tough in academia right now. Research funding from the federal government is very difficult to get even for highly successful faculty members. If you are a highly respected scientist, who is often invited to present at national/international meetings and who has continued a record of publishing in first-tier journals, the transition is much simpler. Alternatively, if the academic setting you are considering is developing a translational medicine department or a medicinal chemistry program, the move can be easier as your industry experience will be of value.
Still you will have to find some sources of funding and you will be spending 50-70% of your time doing just that if you are the head of the lab. The other alternative is to take a position that has a strong teaching component (as is the case in the Cal State University system for example) that can also be highly rewarding and lead to a very productive career in developing young scientists. In either case, a high degree of motivation and energy is necessary to be successful.
During his illustrious 40+ year career, Dr. David Webb (currently an Adjunct Professor at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California) has been actively involved in both academia and industry, holding senior positions at numerous companies and adjunct/consulting professorships at several prestigious institutions. Dr. Webb graduatedfrom Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology. Following graduation, he became a Dernham Junior Fellow of the American Cancer Society at University of California San Francisco from 1971-1973. Since then, Dr. Webb has been actively involved in both academia and industry, including positions such as Associate member at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology and Distinguished Scientist and Institute Director positions at Syntex, Inc. Dr. Webb has held many academic research jobs in addition to the Roche Institute: Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University, Adjunct Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at New York Medical College, and a Consulting Professor of Cancer Biology at Stanford University. Dr. Webb has also held several management positions, in both academia and the life science industry, including: senior manager positions at several biotechnology companies (including Syrrx, OSI Pharmaceuticals, and Cadus Pharmaceutical Corp.), Chairman of the Board of Sorrento Therapeutics, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of BIOCOM, Member of the Executive Committee of the Board of CONNECT (San Diego), and Vice President of Research at Celgene-San Diego.