Showcasing careers beyond academia

Laura Mitchell

Principal Bioinformatician
Alchemab Therapeutics Ltd

Year entered into a non-academic position: 2018

Job highlight:

being part of a company making exciting and rapid progress towards novel therapies

My research training set me up to…:

discover new medicines

Left academia after:

finishing my PhD

What’s your background?

Undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, with a year in industry at MedImmune (now AstraZeneca); then a PhD in structural bioinformatics of single domain antibodies.

Why did you move away from academia?

I was excited about applying the knowledge and skills gained during my PhD in a company setting. I also had a preference for settling in one location – the academic route makes that more difficult.

Is there anything you miss about academia?

Mostly being a part of college and department environments – interacting with people working in different areas. I also miss  working in the centre of town – for the variety of lunch options compared to a research campus!

How did you get this job? Did you face any challenges when considering a move away from academia or applying for the role? 

The first role I had after my PhD was as a Bioinformatician at Kymab, a drug discovery company in Cambridge. I saw the position advertised on LinkedIn and applied – there were two interviews and a coding test. I sought advice on the process from the University Careers service and also spoke to an alumnus who currently worked there to get a feel for his experience at the company. I was excited about the opportunity and my PhD research was relevant, so it was a good fit! 

The only hesitation I had was the idea that leaving academia would be an irreversible decision. In hindsight, that wasn’t true. It is possible to move between the two environments.

What motivated you to/why did you choose the sector you transitioned into?

The goal is to discover and develop medicines that will change patients’ lives!

I was also motivated to join an early stage company, since you play a key role in building the platform and assets. If the company is small, the work is also likely to be quite varied. Alchemab in particular offered an exciting and novel concept, an experienced team, and good funding. 

More broadly, the biotech sector offers the opportunity to keep exploring biology, and I like the emphasis on collaborative team work.

Did you think you had the skills required for your current position before you started? Were you right?

Yes, though I was less certain about my technical skills when transitioning from the PhD to my first position at Kymab. I did indeed have some learning to do, but I shouldn’t have worried because the team was incredibly helpful, and I was able to learn on the job.

I also learned that technical skills aren’t everything – being able to see the bigger picture and having soft skills are also really important.

How did your PhD prepare you for your current job? For example, what were the transferable skills that you developed during your PhD that are most relevant to your current job?

All core research skills are relevant to working in biotech: designing experiments, analysing data, discussing and presenting results, reading and disseminating papers, prioritizing workloads, and so on. 

Did you have any preconceptions about your sector that proved to be wrong?

I suspected that bioinformatics in industry might be fairly constrained in terms of research freedom (compared to academia) or involve fairly repetitive tasks – maybe because company websites typically show a polished version of a drug discovery platform. This was wrong;

as in academia, the journey to a final output is always interesting and involves a lot of creative thinking. In my experience there has always been support to explore new avenues if an idea could be valuable for the company.

Can you describe a typical week in your job?

It would involve a mix of meetings/calls and focused work. Meetings keep everyone updated with the rapid pace of progress and aligned on work plans. Many are short, informal and regular, creating a supportive environment to work collaboratively. Focused work is varied and could involve: analysis of new datasets, development of new software tools; reading papers; reviewing work done by others in the team or preparation of content for presentations, patents or papers.

What is the workplace culture like? Please include comments on work-life balance, flexibility, remote working?

There is a fantastic workplace culture at Alchemab. People are engaged, supportive, and driven. We have a healthy work-life balance – people sometimes put in hours outside of 9-5, but this is because they are interested and motivated to get things done, or there is an important deadline to meet. There is also a culture of trust around flexible and remote working.

Do people with a PhD frequently get hired in the company/sector?

Yes. Many roles are research roles so PhD experience is highly relevant.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

It’s incredibly rewarding to see a protein sequence emerge from bioinformatic analysis, and evolve into a potential therapeutic candidate.

It’s a privilege to work on such large, patient-derived datasets; and exciting to have novel drug targets emerging from them. Generally it’s great being part of a maturing company – there’s a strong sense of progress from a collective effort.

What are your reflections on your career path?

I feel very fortunate to have done a year in industry placement as an undergraduate – it nudged me towards research projects with an applied focus from the very start, enabling a fairly direct path to my current role. ‘Fairly direct’, because during my PhD I dabbled in entrepreneurial projects – none were profitable – but they helped me understand the world of start-ups and build my network. Now, five years on from finishing my PhD, I’m proud of the drug projects and technologies I have contributed to, and it’s nice to be able to pay forward the experience I have gained to new joiners to the industry.

I’m looking forward to seeing projects I contributed to (at both companies) reach clinical trials.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs considering a career outside of academia?

If you’re interested in a scientific role in industry – talk to people from companies of different sizes and stages. If you find a position you are interested in, learn what you can about the company before applying or interviewing.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when exploring a transition?

Quite often roles will adapt to the interests and strengths of an individual. There might be more scope to design a role in a company than you think.

Can you recommend any relevant resources, organisations or events that might help somebody new to the sector find out more about it?

The Cambridge New Therapeutics Forum organizes interesting events attended by many people in the sector, across industry and academia.