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Outside the Lab Profession

Career Snapshots with Cary Austin

Cary Austin
Senior Principal Scientist
Genentech, San Francisco, California, USA

Tell us a little about your biotech career…

I’m an MD/PhD-trained pathologist. When I started medical school, my interest was in combining a science career with a medical career. I still wanted to do that by the time I finished the program and got into anatomic pathology residency, so I ended up doing a postdoc at Stanford after residency. While I was there, the PI of the lab was recruited as Vice President of Research at Genentech and offered everyone in the lab the opportunity to finish their postdoc projects there. After hearing what some of the other postdocs were saying about the experience, I thought I would have a productive experience there – so decided to try it.

It took about six months to a year before the project I was working on looked like it wasn’t going anywhere – but I started to get interested in some of the scientific questions being addressed at Genentech. By the end of my postdoc, I was hooked. I wanted to stay in that environment as a research pathologist. One thing that attracted me was getting involved in a project that was a high priority for the company and joining a team in which a lot of different people with different experiences and different expertise met every week to provide new data and move the project forward. I saw how fast a high-priority project with ample resources and attention could move. It really was an exciting environment to be in.

I joined as a research pathologist in 2005 and I’ve been there ever since supporting immunology and infectious disease programs in early-stage research and then in later development. As research pathologists, we provide pathology expertise and capability as scientific collaborators on team-based science projects that range from early-stage research (when a new pathway is being explored for potential for therapeutic targeting) all the way to late-stage clinical trials (when a particular candidate drug is in final testing before becoming an actual medicine). Each pathologist in our department works on several different projects across that that spectrum, each focused on a particular therapeutic hypothesis. A “day in the life” for me involves bringing tissue-based science and my expertise as a research pathologist to a variety of different projects.

Why don’t more people in pathology explore industry careers?

It’s not a traditional career! I didn’t know anything about it when I committed to a research career – and the examples I saw as a resident were academic pathologists working in research institutions who had clinical responsibilities and research labs. I thought that was how you combined research and pathology into a career; I didn’t know anything about industry work.

There is a “traditional” role for pathology in industry that spans back decades – in safety assessment. But the department I work in is aimed at bringing pathology expertise and capability to the research stage of drug development when the therapeutic hypothesis is being generated. Once I got here, I realized that role exists – but it’s something I don’t think is transparent to a lot of people, because a lot of what we do involves intellectual properties, so you can’t really go to a website and read about it or see the work people are doing. If you go to PubMed, you can see that there is a lot of academic science being done at organizations like ours, but I don’t think we’re first and foremost in people’s minds when they’re getting trained.

What’s your favorite part of your work?

My favorite part of my work is that I get to participate in innovation and try to address unmet medical needs for patients. It’s easy to get up in the morning knowing that you’re working on something that, if it’s productive, will impact patient lives. That’s really, really exciting.

And, in so doing, I get to work with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. It’s a collaborative environment, so we always do things using a team-based approach. That’s a little different to my experiences in academia, where you define your turf and build your own projects; the work here requires a lot of people, input, and cooperation – which is really energizing. There’s never a dull moment in a day’s work.

I also get to combine all of my training to do this work – my medical school training, my research training, my anatomic pathology training, and the experience I’ve built up over years working in this role in industry. Every week, something requires me to call one of those experiences to help move something forward or to provide some perspective or insight that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I feel like none of my training is wasted in this role.

How do you help spread the word about biotech and industry?

I’m a member of the American Society for Investigative Pathology (ASIP), which has several scientific interest groups. Together with Sean O’Neill, a pathologist at Pfizer, I started up a new scientific interest group focused on pathology in industry. One of the first things we did is host a virtual panel discussion in which nine pathologists from industry briefly described how we got into it, what we do, and what our departments do for the benefit of ASIP members, many of whom are trainees.

 Another thing I’ve done in the past is visit residency programs and give career talks – something a number of my colleagues have also done. We even had an ASIP Scientific Session at a recent experimental biology conference; our scientific interest group sponsored a symposium in which five pathologist investigators from industry each gave a 25- to 30-minute talk on project work they’re doing. I think that gave attendees a good sense of some of the things going on in industry pathology departments, so hopefully we can grow the scientific interest group over time.

What one key thing would you like to share about what you do?

I’d like pathologists and laboratory medicine professionals to know that there are interesting career opportunities for research-trained pathologists and for pathology core lab staff. We have excellent pathology core labs; a lot of people there came from hospital core labs. It’s fun, interesting work and I recommend you get a little more familiar with it if you’re interested. One way to do that is to join ASIP and our scientific interest group; that’s the best way to be looped in when we have upcoming career events or scientific symposia that you might want to attend. We’ll be glad to meet you!

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