Dr. Venus Lai, Executive Director at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, reflects on her career path starting with an internship with Johanna Rommens, to her graduate studies with Tony Pawson, to her current position where she leads a team of scientists aimed at increasing the speed at which therapeutics are developed. Venus reminisces about coffee hours at Mount Sinai, imparts advice on how to obtain a job in industry, and recommends that you should always be in pursuit of your dream job.
Can you describe your current position as an Executive Director at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals?
I joined the VelociGene department at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in 2009. Regeneron is an integrated biopharmaceutical company that discovers and develops medicines for the treatment of serious medical conditions, and our department VelociGene, as the name suggests, is responsible for developing innovative technology that enables scale and complexity in creating animal models to support discovery research and therapeutic development in a very short amount of time. My primary role in this department is to provide the scientific and operational oversight.
Why did you choose the University of Toronto and the department of Molecular Genetics for your graduate studies?
My first exposure to lab work was when I received an internship at Sickkids Hospital with Johanna Rommens who worked on cystic fibrosis. I thought it was a lot of fun! It was my first exposure to molecular biology and human genetics. I ran my first gel, conducted my first PCR site-directed mutagenesis and was working on trying to identify mutations in patients with cystic fibrosis. After that experience, I wanted to continue in the field of molecular genetics and thought that Molecular Genetics at UofT was a great department because there were many great scientists and options that will lead to advancement of my career.
Can you share some of your favourite memories from graduate school?
There were so many! I thought that the annual retreat at Mount Sinai was really special. It was a three-hour drive in the autumn time and it was always really beautiful. We could hang out with colleagues outside of the lab and talk about science or just party. There were also weekly seminars and coffee hours, so I would try to help organize the coffee meetings. I really enjoyed being able to meet and talk to really smart people from very diverse backgrounds, which also made them great opportunities to learn about more than just science.
Can you describe your career path from Molecular Genetics to your current position?
When I was a graduate student in Tony Pawson’s lab, we focused on signal transduction. There were many different roles in understanding signal transduction, such as how oncogenes may be involved in different pathways. Right next door, we also had one of the best mouse geneticists in the world: Janet Rossant. It was great to have all these resources and brainstorming.
I worked on a gene called Shc, which was an oncogene and highly conserved in evolution. I used mouse genetics and protein structure analysis and what we found was that the mouse knockout had defects in angiogenesis. My experiences eventually led me to drug development. I never thought that I would have a career in drug development, but the science and my experience in working with mouse genetics and angiogenesis, Regeneron turned out to be perfect for me.
What was the most important thing that you learned in graduate school?
Tony Pawson’s lab at the time was very crowded and only had a handful of students. That motivated me to talk to everyone else in the lab, including the really smart postdocs. I was able to talk and brainstorm with everyone about different ideas about my project. And then, when I actually talked with Tony, the meetings became very meaningful because I already had insights relevant to a lot of ideas. Another key memory for me was one time, I was showing Tony a Western Blot and he asked, “well, where is your pre-immune control? An experiment without a control is meaningless.” Altogether, this taught me the fundamental process of being a good scientist involves thinking about your ideas, talking to good people and that controls are very important. Tony actually told me that experiments without a control are meaningless.
And then having Janet Rossant on my committee was great because she was a great female role model. I remember that I used to feel very intimidated as a woman, but she gave me confidence and told me, “no one knows the science of your project better than you”. That really helped me believe in myself and it really helped boost my confidence that I could be a good scientist too.
Did having a PhD help you later in your career?
Absolutely. I would say that because of the training, the inspiration and the supportive culture, I definitely would not have gotten this position without my PhD training. The PhD training was not just about a PhD degree. It is the process of learning how to be a good scientist and how not to give up. Another really important skill that a PhD training helped with was how to communicate your science to an audience, such as through presentations and writing good papers and your thesis.
What Is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Right now, with my current role and responsibilities, the most important aspect of my job is to provide leadership. This was beyond my PhD training in how to be a good scientist. Being a leader involves keeping in mind the big picture and figuring out how to motivate people to work hard. I often ask myself: How do I become a good manager? How do I make sure that the people that work hard will be rewarded? How do I make sure the people that need development are aware that they are not performing, but in a positive way? I think there is an art to conveying my point, but also without hurting feelings. I think that is something that is still challenging to me, but as a leader, it is something I need to do. We need to have the courage to make difficult decisions and to provide necessary feedback.
Another challenging aspect is maintaining relationships. There are a lot of really smart people in industry. We often have conferences to promote discussion and you need to be able to convey your opinion to your colleagues, but also not hurt any feelings and maintain a good collegial relationship. No one is born as a natural manager and it is something you have to learn with experience.
How would you describe the current job market in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry?
It is challenging in the field. I am lucky because Regeneron has been doing well over the past few years. Financially, we are doing very well and are even expanding, so I can’t really provide the best unbiased view on how the industry is doing now. However, what I have learned in the past few years is that you can do the best science, but that doesn’t always translate to successful drug development. The take home message is: you just have to do the best science that you can. I always tell my people to not get too comfortable. You should continue to always develop yourself to broaden your horizons and really challenge yourself, so that you can be ready if you need to take a different direction.
What are the top requirements for someone pursuing a career in industry?
I think it really depends on your long-term goal. With PhD training, there are many opportunities out there. These days especially, there are so many innovations and advances, you could be training as a scientist, but that doesn’t mean your career just has to be bench work. I think there are many things you can do. For example, if you are interested in next generation sequencing, we need people to analyze large datasets. There are no strict requirements. You just need to think about what you really want to do and what you are good at.
What was the best career advice you received when you were preparing to graduate?
I was very fortunate. When I was preparing to graduate, I talked a lot to Tony and Janet and they gave me ideas on postdoc opportunities. At the time, I think that was the natural path for me. I also applied to some positions in industry, but Tony would remind me to just follow my passion. In the end, it was also about location. I wanted to stay in Toronto, but I also wanted to explore the world, so if I do a postdoc, I’m not married to a specific location. I can visit for a short amount of time and then come back to Toronto. It is a good opportunity to see the world.
What advice would you give to students who are looking for career options in industry?
I think the most important thing is you need to find something that you love to do. When interviewing people, I like to look people in the eye and ask, “what is your dream job?” Obviously, you might not always get to choose, but a career should not just be an 8-hour a day job. People often approach me and ask how to get a job in industry and what they have to do. I don’t think that is the right motivation. You need to ask yourself “I have this skill set, so what can I do?” I hired someone who knew nothing about drug development, pharmacology or mouse models and disease modeling, but I hired him because he has a talent to optimize a process. He was a computer scientist. I want a team with diverse people with different ideas and that has really worked out. My main advice is to identify what you are good at and that will help you find a career path in industry.