Dr. Cheryl Birmingham

Dr. Cheryl Birmingham

Dr. Cheryl Birmingham completed her PhD in John Brummel’s lab and directly started her career in industry through an NSERC-funded industrial post-doc position. She is now the Head of Bacteriology at Sanofi Pasteur. Through her personal experience after working in industry, Cheryl provides sage advice to trainees hoping to break through and land that first position at a company. Cheryl also reminisces about her time as a graduate student in MoGen and all the wonderful friends and connections she made, and the important impact that had on her career trajectory

Can you describe your current position as Head of Bacteriology at Sanofi Pasteur?

Sanofi Pasteur is a global leader in vaccine manufacturing. At the Toronto site, there are two divisions. In one division, vaccines are manufactured that are already licensed; the other division is Research and Development (R&D). R&D makes new vaccines and tests them in clinical trials to make sure they are safe and efficacious.

I am in the D part of R&D, which is development. My unit tests experimental vaccines that have been scaled up for use in clinical trials to ensure that they are safe and work like they are supposed to before injection into people. My lab specifically focuses on developing and validating microbiology-based analytical tests, for example tests for bacterial viability, bacterial endotoxin, testing for mycoplasma, etc.

Why did you choose the University of Toronto and the department of Molecular Genetics for your graduate studies?

When I was looking into where to complete my graduate studies, I decided to stay in Canada. For me, the two major choices were between the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, based upon their reputations for great biological science. I visited both universities and found that the research in Toronto was more compelling and interesting to me at the time; for example, HIV and cancer research, bacterial pathogenesis, etc.

What are your favourite memories from graduate school?

The people in MoGen are wonderful, both in my PhD lab and throughout the entire department. My PI, John Brumell, is fantastic. He has such a love for basic science that it made the lab fun. I still keep in touch with him to this day.

I also developed a very close group of friends in the department, which we fondly called ‘Bizjak’. We would meet every week to decompress after our long days of working in grad school – usually at a local pub. We’ve all since graduated and are now spread across the globe, but I honestly miss every single one of them. Oh, the stories we could tell.… but probably shouldn’t.

The people of the department are definitely my best memories.

How did your experiences as a graduate student in MoGen influence your career trajectory?

My grad work concentrated on pathogenic bacteria and directly resulted in an NSERC-funded industrial postdoc at an engineering company investigating the antimicrobial effects of nanomaterial. The industry experience I gained there was a great help in getting my current position at Sanofi Pasteur.

In a practical sense, the people I met during my time in MoGen directly impacted where I am today. The connections are very important. Two previous post-docs in my lab were instrumental in my landing the position at Sanofi.

How did having a PhD help you in your career?

Being a graduate student isn’t about mindlessly doing experiments. It actually teaches you how to think and how to make a story of what you’re studying. It also teaches you project and time management. All of these qualities are absolutely essential for a career in science, whether in industry or academia. My training as a PhD student was essential to get me to where I am today.

What was the most difficult aspect of transitioning from doing bench work to your current job?

I love bench work. As head of a testing laboratory, I now mostly go to meetings and answer e-mails, so I really do miss doing bench work. I find bench work both relaxing and inspiring at the same time; I really enjoy seeing the results from individual experiments first hand. I find it almost magical how you can mix microscopic things in a test tube and get insight into how things work in the natural world. However, now I concentrate more on the big picture - how all the individual results from my lab come together.

How would you describe the current job market in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry?

In short - difficult and highly competitive. Speaking from the perspective of someone who hires people into industry, for one job posting we can get hundreds of resumes even after the initial HR screening. But it is possible to get a position in industry. So don’t give up if you don’t get an interview right away.

What are the top requirements for someone pursuing a career in industry?

When thinking about this question, I came up with three things. Number one, the major thing I look for when interviewing someone is a good solid understanding of the theory behind their experimental work. They have to understand why they did that test and how that technique works.

The second thing I look for is whether they are a team player. Being a team player is absolutely critical. Being able to work independently is nice, but you have to be able to work in a team environment in industry.

The third thing is attention to detail. There are more rules and regulations in industry than in academia because we make products that go into human beings. We have to build quality into products. If you work in industry, you have to be able to follow protocols and procedures to the letter and document everything - nothing can slip through and everything has to be traceable.

What was the best career advice you received when you were preparing to graduate?

The best advice I received came when I was nervously pacing around right before defending my thesis, actually from a couple of different people. They told me that, after all the time and work you put into your thesis, you are the expert in the field. You know more than the people who are listening and asking questions.

The reason I found this piece of advice so important was that it helped to boost my confidence. You will likely not be working on something directly related to your PhD thesis at your future job, therefore it is key to have confidence in yourself and trust in what you know. It can a little daunting when you start a new position and it can be easy to feel that you are not as smart as everyone else who has been there for a while.  But you really are, and everyone is thinking the same questions as you.

What advice would you give to students who are looking for career options in industry?

I have two pieces of advice. The first one is: think about it. Is industry really what you want? Does it fit your personality? I picked industry because I wanted to be closer to the end result and develop products that actually go into people. This was the right choice for me. I find it very rewarding to know that a vaccine project I am directly involved in is preventing people from getting sick. But on the other side, you don’t have as much freedom in industry as in academia. You don’t get to pick your project and sometimes you don’t get to follow the project to completion. Some questions may be left unanswered. Would that drive you crazy?

The second piece of advice is networking. Networking is key. It is hard to do, but it will probably be the single most important thing to get you that first job. Don’t give up. Talk to more and more people – at conferences, at networking events, even at backyard BBQs.  You never know when you might meet someone who has a line into industry. Don’t be afraid to bother people. I do get e-mails from people that I don’t know and I can’t really help, but I don’t mind. I was in that same position once, and I understand how hard it can be to find your way into a company. It doesn’t hurt to try. Having someone vouch for you may be the difference that lands you the job.