Bioscience Careers

November 18, 2019

RECAP: Dr. Glenna Foight, “Finding Exciting Science in Industry”

Dr. Foight received her undergraduate education at North Carolina State University where she became interested in protein structure. She decided to apply this interest by pursuing structural and computational biology in her Ph.D. work at MIT where she used peptide libraries to study the determinants of protein-peptide interaction specificity and to engineer specific inhibitors of Bcl-2 protein family members.  

When she started considering what to do after graduate school she felt that she had obtained a wide array of skills including leading projects, protein engineering, and wet lab technical skills. However, she felt she lacked experience with using Rosetta, a biomolecular modeling software suite, and hands-on experience with mammalian cells and cell biology. To gain expertise in these areas, she decided to do a post-doc at UW developing new tools for chemical biology using interface protein design. During her post-doc, she computationally designed two small-molecule inducible protein dimerizers based on the hepatitis C viral protease NS3a. 

In 2018, Dr. Foight had gained expertise in mammalian synthetic biology and was looking into starting to transition her career into becoming an assistant professor in a tenure track position. However, she still felt lacking in expert knowledge in areas of therapeutic biology. She was also struggling to get a paper out of her post-doc work and was staring down the path of 1-2 more years of post-docing as a biologist in a chemistry department. Then one day while running a flow cytometry experiment she met someone from the Baker lab and had a conversation about a new start up that was forming. During this conversation she learned she would be perfect for this position. 

Dr. Foight began asking around for advice on choosing between the academic and industry career tracks. She noticed a distinct difference in the advice she received from more senior mentors compared to younger mentors and peers. The older individuals tended to advise that at this point in her career it was worth sticking in academia because it is hard to transition back once you’ve switched over to industry. However, the younger people seemed to have the perception that going to a startup was much more common and easier to switch between academia and industry. 

After talking to others and thinking it over, Dr. Foight decided to choose pursuing a career in industry. She appreciated how working in industry would give her access to smart collaborators with expertise different from her own. She liked the idea of working towards a common goal with a lot of people because people would be more willing to teach and help each other out. She also felt the company she would join valued basic science research and publishing. Furthermore, the problems being investigated at the company were more cutting-edge and important than what she could do in her own individual lab in academia. Personal reasons were also important, she wanted to be able to afford a house and have a family before 35 which is hard to do on the academic track. Ultimately, though, it came down to feeling like the company was where she could do the most exciting science. 

Now, Dr. Foight works at Lyell Immunopharma Inc. in Seattle as a senior scientist in a protein and cell engineering team of about 17 people at the intersection of protein design, mammalian synthetic biology, and immunotherapy. She joined the company when it was still setting up, so during the first months of 2019 she got to gain experience in setting up a lab. She was able to meet with the architects to review the lab blueprints, order lab equipment and supplies, met with vendors and write job descriptions for research assistant and scientist needs. She currently directly oversees the work of a research associate and a scientist and also leads a few research project. She still has the opportunity to do some lab work and gets to spend most of her day thinking about doing cutting-edge science. 

Dr. Foight explained similarities and differences between working as a senior scientist and as an assistant professor. Both jobs require learning how to hire, build and manage a team. Both positions require thinking deeply about science and being able to drive research projects forward. Both positions require being able to discuss and communicate science with your peers. However, the senior scientist position in industry does have different pressures and priorities than an academic job. At Lyell Immunopharma, she doesn’t have to worry about funding, but the lack of infrastructure at the company that you would normally find at a university or a long-established company means it takes more work to secure instruments and supplies. In addition, in industry you tend to focus less on publishing and can really focus on the problem solving and the science… except for when you’re stuck in meetings.  

In an assistant professor position, you have to spend a lot more time writing grants and papers and gaining new expertise as finding collaborators can be harder. However, in an academic position you have a lot of power to determine research priorities and directions, while at Lyell Immunopharma she has less of that power because the company has very defined goals.  

Dr. Foight finished her presentation by giving her advice as a hiring manager to how to get a job in industry. Her primary piece of advice was to network, which doesn’t just mean go to a bunch of random networking events, but rather seeking out specific connections with labs that industry knows produces good researchers with desired skill sets. These networks can be really important in finding what opportunities are out there as well as obtaining referrals and compelling letters of recommendation. For people looking to expand their networks she suggests attending conferences or local networking events as well as just reaching out to the opportunities here on campus: advisors and professors, departmental research talks, friend in other labs, etc. Attending or hosting visiting professors and industry speakers, like those coming to the Bioscience Career Seminars is also a good way to start building your network.