From Books to Bench & Back

By Katelyn Richards

“Whoa, this place is huge and there’s so much happening here,” I thought to myself as I entered AveXis, a start-up gene therapy company where I worked for a year and a half as a Bioprocess Engineer. On my first day, the enthusiastic atmosphere was contagious, surrounded by energetic colleagues scurrying around the office and the manufacturing floor. Moments later, my colleague burst through the office exclaiming: “We have the highest titer yet!”. Applause erupted through the building as the news spread about the recent success, and I was filled with the feeling that I had made the right choice. The news: we had the highest titer of a gene-therapy aimed at curing a horrible genetic disease that kills infants, called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

Why did I end up working for this super start-up?

Well, like many of you, four years passed by in the blink of an eye and I was graduating with my Bachelor’s. A mixture of fear and excitement filled me as I realized I was entering the “real” world. I had no idea what field I would pursue in graduate school, although I knew I would one day go back. I decided to plunge into the working world first and found AveXis, which was aiming to produce one of the first FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approved gene therapies. Spoiler alert: We were approved in 2019 

Katelyn in the lab

One thing I loved about working for a start-up company was that I was able to wear many hats. In general, I mainly worked in cell culture and maintenance of the bioreactors used for our product. However, as with most start-ups, the company grew rapidly with expanding needs, so I took on extra responsibilities to learn more. For example, I also helped write standard operating procedures and worked on investigations. Some people from my department even went on to start a new investigations department. There was always something to be doing, and there was always the opportunity to learn something new!

Moments later, my colleague burst through the office exclaiming: “We have the highest titer yet!” and applause erupted through the building.

I recommend start-up cultures for anyone looking to really throw themselves into something and take on many responsibilities. However, larger biopharmaceutical companies may offer more perks, established roles and a bigger network. Both scenarios have their advantages and disadvantages, but I believe it is important to be working for a company where you are passionate about what you are doing! 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Academia or industry: what’s the difference and why did I go back?

I like to think of academia as your kitchen at home and industry as Chef Gordon Ramsey’s industrial kitchen, famous for the consistent quality. In your own kitchen, you often get to follow your own recipe (protocol) and experiment with it. However, in industry, there is a certain commercial expectation in place, i.e. the FDA/ EMA (European Medicines Agency) quality regulations. Both systems are necessary for an entire idea to come to reality, and often academia works hand-in-hand with industry. A recipe out of the kitchen can become the next “big thing” served in restaurants all over the world!

In a start-up there is always something to do and always the opportunity to learn something new!

AveXis was a great beginning, but I wanted to further my education. My experience working in industry inspired my interests in conducting novel research that could potentially lead to a cure or a therapy for diseases. After all, the academic research of Dr. Brian Kaspar turned into a cure for SMA and ultimately AveXis! I am doing my Master’s in Biomolecular Sciences for my own personal development and to explore these interests further. While I am still not sure whether I will pursue a PhD, I do know my Master’s will expose me to new fields of research and help me grow as a scientist!

About the writer

Katelyn Richards is a first-year VU Biomolecular Sciences Master’s student from the United States. She is interested in disease-related research in the fields of immunology, oncology and genetics.

Image credits

Cover Photo by CDC on Unsplash

5 thoughts on “From Books to Bench & Back

  1. Really interesting piece to read! I haven’t heard a lot of experiences (or actually none) of students in industry, so this was surely a thing I was wondering about. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Thanks Sonja! I’m glad the experience was interesting. Based on what I’ve heard, I think it’s less common in Europe that people work right after their Bachelor’s and instead go for their Master’s immediately in the sciences. In America, it’s fairly common for people to work for a few years before continuing their studies. Either way works though, and it’s just about exploring your interests or passions in different ways! 🙂

  2. Hi Katelyn,
    Thanks for the interesting piece. Always nice to hear student stories!
    I was wondering how you (and maybe others working with you there) found this start up … was it an undergrad internship that turned into a job, an online job ad or maybe word of mouth/through your network?

  3. Hi Katelyn,
    Interesting article, always nice to hear student stories!
    I was wondering how you (and perhaps also your colleagues) stumbled across this kind of start-up position?
    Was it an industry internship that turned into a contract, a job ad online, or perhaps through word of mouth/your network?

    In your experience, do you think there are differences to look out for between start-up and (pharma/biotech) company application processes?

    1. Hi Madi,

      Thanks for your comment! Funny story, I’m originally from Boston, where there’s a lot of biotech/biopharma companies, so I was only applying locally at first. However, a recruiter on Linkenln actually reached out to me about this position at AveXis in Chicago. I said, “Sure, why not?” since the position sounded very interesting and went through the interview process. I ended up getting a job offer and decided that it was worth moving to try something new with a great start-up company!

      I do have a strong Linkenln presence with a large network and I keep my information up-to-date. I think just basic use of this professional networking platform is really critical in today’s job market and I’ve heard it’s also used largely in the Netherlands too! It probably helped the recruiter find me for this position based on my skill set.

      For both start-up and larger pharma/biotech, it’s really important to show that you’re passionate about science, as well as what this company or team is doing. I felt like this was actually easier to do at AveXis, mainly because they had one drug in their pipeline when I was applying. So, when I studied their website and background for my interview, it was easy to focus on this one topic. It made for great conversation with my interviewers and I really got to see the passion from the second I walked into the building.

      By comparison, I interviewed for a position at Abbvie once, which is a large biopharmaceutical company with many different pipelines. The group I was interviewing with was much larger with many different projects going on, and I found it way more difficult to choose what to focus on when studying their website. The interview itself still went great and I could still see their passion, but it was harder to know how to direct the conversation or go into depth about any one thing.

      Take-away: At a start-up, you’ll be expected to potentially work longer days since the company is just getting started, take on extra responsibilities outside of your role as they come up, and be able to communicate with many different groups. At a bigger company, you’ll likely be able to stick to your schedule more easily and you’ll likely be more regimented to the responsibilities within your role. I think both can be great opportunities and it just depends what you want to get out of the experience!