Biology at Johnson & Johnson (feat. Kurt Reynertson)
Alumni Aloud Episode 42
Kurt Reynertson is a graduate of the Biology PhD Program at the Graduate Center. He is now Manager of Regulatory & Stewardship Policy at Johnson & Johnson.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Kurt tells us about his transition from the plant sciences program to product research. He explains how industry jobs, especially those in a large company, can complement multidisciplinary skillsets and offer a wide range of opportunities.
This episode’s interview was conducted by Camila Yattah. The music is “Corporate (Success)” by Scott Holmes.
This podcast episode was produced by a Graduate Center student who participated in an Alumni Aloud fellowship offered through the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. This programming was sponsored by the CUNY Central Office Career Success – Workforce Development Initiative.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
CAMILA YATTAH, HOST: Hi everyone, I’m Camila Yattah. I’m a PhD student from Biochemistry from CUNY. And I’m here today with Kurt Reynertson. He is an alumna, a Graduate Center alumna, and he is now working at Johnson and Johnson. So I’m here with him and I want him to start introducing himself for all of you. So how are you Kurt today?
KURT REYNERTSON, GUEST: Hi Camila, great to talk to you.
YATTAH: So can you please tell me who you are, your academic background and where you are now?
REYNERTSON: Yeah sure. I actually, I feel like I stumbled into like CUNY and the grad program almost without…just by following my own interests. I had been, I had graduated with my Bachelor’s many years before I went back to school. But I had always had this interest in plants and how people use plants. And so somewhere along the way, I found myself reading like you know chemistry textbooks that you know, just like on my own trying to figure this out. And then the next thing I knew I walked into you know, a chemistry class just kind of randomly at Hunter. And I took one course and then I started talking to the professor and he told that, “oh if you really want to study plant science, you should be in The Graduate Center and in the CUNY system or basically up at Lehmann College. Because there, the Plant Science program there is actually run in association with the Botanical Gardens which is up in the Bronx, which is a few blocks away. So once again I kind of found myself hiking up to the Bronx, walked in, sort of found my way into a couple classes and then the next thing I knew I was a doctoral student in the Plant Science program.
YATTAH: That’s, that’s uh nice and impressive also because I haven’t met so many plant biologists nowadays. I feel like everyone goes into cancer or to other…neuroscience for example. Those are some major areas but plants is kind of rare to find.
REYNERTSON: Yeah I mean my interest really was kind of in the, in the medicinal side.
REYNERTSON: So you know it’s funny that you mention cancer because you know I ended up spending kind of, you know most of my doctoral research was working on, looking for anti-cancer plant compounds. I was specifically working on a group of tropical fruits. So I initially thought I was going to be sort of a field botanist, you know going out and spending my time out in tropical places. But I ended up only doing a very small amount of that. Again it’s like, I feel very lucky with how things kind of worked out in a lot of ways with CUNY because there’s so many sort of advantages I had. You know working through the program that I was in, the Plant Science program is just one of the subprograms within the Biology. But I kind of had access to you know everything else that was at CUNY. And then there was the other doctoral consortium in the city so I had access to you know equipment and courses at some of the other schools in the city as well.
YATTAH: Right, like you can find people from everywhere because it’s a big, big college and different areas and being in touch with all of these different fields. And how did you manage to get into the industry? From CUNY I know that you went to Cornell?
REYNERTSON: Right, yeah. Again I mean, I am not I guess a really good planner. And I sort of take things as they come and sort of figure out like oh what do I want to do now, what do I want to do now. And I think some people, you know, have a better idea of like how to look at a far away goal and then work backwards with all the steps. Whereas, in the same way that I sort of ended up at you know, at CUNY, I started looking around. And at the time I had a young daughter and I didn’t want to leave New York City so I started looking at who had funding from you know NIH to do anything related to medicinal plants. And I found there was someone at Cornell at the med school, you know New York Presbyterian over on the east side. Who had a program on integrative medicine.
So I reached out and the next thing I knew I was setting up a postdoc. And I ended up working through their Complimentary and Integrative Medicine program in the Pharmacology department there. And I was there for about four years. And you know, I actually was specifically looking to not do the exact same work I had done as a grad student. I wanted to sort of expand my skillset. So instead of you know, looking for another postdoc that was kind of more in line with what I had been doing, one of the things I had encountered as a grad student was…I was finding all these compounds and I was collaborating with, you know, sort of regular biologists to do assays and look at how these compounds could be useful. I really wanted to understand that a little bit better. So my postdoc was very much a molecular pharmacology postdoc. It was a radical change. Even though I was coming from a biology program, I felt like I was much more of a chemist/botanist. And so I walked into my postdoc and kind of… I just told everyone I was a chemist so they wouldn’t expect me to know the biology. *laughs*
REYNERTSON: And you know I ended up, it was really, it was really you know fantastic. Because then…
YATTAH: You learned a lot of stuff, tools.
REYNERTSON: Yeah you know I had a whole lab full of people who were my collaborators and teachers. All over again it was starting from ground zero and learning a whole other skillset.
YATTAH: Yeah that’s exciting also to renew the, like being a job or being a postdoc that doesn’t have anything to do with your PhD because it keeps you thinking new ideas and being in a field, right?
REYNERTSON: And I feel like at the same time I was just bringing my whole skillset to the lab because at the time that I stepped in there was some analytical equipment that nobody was using because they didn’t have somebody there to run it.
YATTAH: So it was an enriching situation for both sides.
REYNERTSON: Yeah I think so, and I think you know, you bring a whole different perspective when you step into a situation like that. And I really appreciated like that whole concept of like becoming a very interdisciplinary scientist. Not just sort of being pigeon-holed into one very narrow scope.
YATTAH: Yeah I feel like science nowadays is collaborative field where people bring their different insights into a project. That’s a trend that is happening now, right?
REYNERTSON: Yeah I mean I think each field is like learning a language you know. And I had to… to be able to speak each other’s language is the way to figure out how to collaborate.
YATTAH: Yeah I totally agree.
REYNERTSON: I was really happy about it. The interesting thing that I found though… I was a postdoc for a few years, somebody asked me you know, quietly, “hey are you, are you looking for other jobs?” And I was like, “what do you mean, of course I am.” Like if you’re a postdoc and you’re not looking, you know you say you’re not looking for jobs you’re either lying or you’re kidding yourself. *laughs* I mean I think it’s just part of the process at a certain point. I mean I was actually doing, I thought what I was doing went really well. I had started there on an NIH training grant and I transitioned to my own, I had a DoD sort of career award for you know postdoctoral training. And so I thought like oh I’m doing all the right things, right. I was getting out publications and as I started to look for other positions you know, and even interviewing through universities, I had kind of always thought that the way, that once you go to graduate school, it’s grad student, postdoc, assistant professor.
REYNERTSON: You know, I feel like we hear that drumbeat a lot I think and maybe more so when I was a student. I was kind of just assuming that was my path. One of the things I sort of felt was that the academic positions I was looking at were still… Some of them seemed to be a little confused, like I was like I know the biology, I know the chemistry, I know the botany. I almost felt like they wanted something that was a little more boxed in. At least some of the handful that I spoke to at the time. And somehow like that ability to apply for a job in various different departments was sort of you know, almost seemed like, “well you have to decide which one are you.” And the interesting thing was in the midst of that sort of search, a friend of mine who had been like a grad student with me, sent me a posting he had seen. And he said, “hey I saw this job posting, it seems like you should take a look at it.” It was this posting from J&J and read through the thing and it was looking for somebody who had done chemistry, who had done pharmacology you know, had worked with, basically each one of the things that I had done.
YATTAH: Yeah they were calling for you!
REYNERTSON: Yeah it was really strange, I was kind of… I mean I was very surprised you know and very kind of like, “oh that’s weird, it lists each one of the steps that I’ve done.” So I sent my CV off and I got a call within a couple days, which also shocked me because you know it’s like… I had sent my CV off to a couple industry positions and I felt like I was throwing them into a black hole. You don’t even get a response.
REYNERTSON: I think a lot of the times there’s a feeling that you have to know somebody at the company. But I think that it was just you know, another element of serendipity where they had been sort of looking for someone and hadn’t found someone and then my sort of my CV showed up on the right day I guess. Within a couple weeks, I think within like two weeks, I was there interviewing and then… still sort of not believing like, well… I didn’t understand like what is it they’re looking for. And then they had, basically on the train ride home I got the call you know, offering me the job. So it was kind of, it was quick once it happened. You know, like oh my gosh, am I ready to leave New York? Am I ready to leave academia? Sort of make all these changes that I wasn’t expecting. So it was a very quick, sudden transition in a way.
YATTAH: And talking about getting this surprise getting the job so quickly, what do you think your PhD helped you…What helped you more to get the job, having the PhD, having the postdoc, having publications, all together, was a mix? From your own perspective, what do you think was the most important or was that combination?
REYNERTSON: Yeah I think it was a little bit of all of that. I mean certainly having the PhD was the first most critical hurdle. I mean I think…I know that in a lot of industry positions they’re not necessarily looking for PhDs of there’s sort of different types of jobs right. And so not all of them require PhD’s. This particular position, it was.. in some ways it was a very academic position that I stepped into where I was doing pretty early upstream drug research. Somebody who had done that kind of research was what they were looking for. That’s exactly what a PhD trains you to do. I think you know the exact PhD sometimes is less important than knowing that you’ve gone through the process and even, you know, even at the end of the day when I was there interviewing. I’ll never forget this because I was sitting there and having spent like the entire day giving a presentation and meeting with different people, you know. I was sitting with the person who would become my ex-boss. And I asked him like, “what exactly…how, what would my job look like on a day to day basis?” And he said, “you know, we can look at your CV and see that you’ve done, got publications, you’ve done this, you’re capable. What we want to see when we’re interviewing is how you would interact with people and how you would fit in.”
So I think that’s a big part of it too. It’s not just about having the credentials on paper but how you, how you work with people in the real world. And he said, “basically, we just want to hire smart people who can come and figure out what their job is going to be.” And I thought, the light went off in my head and I was like, “that’s amazing, I want to do that” right. You know and I did step into a group that was about 20 different PhD’s and everybody who is coming from a different field. I mean it was a really remarkable sort of situation I thought where being interdisciplinary was a critical part of that role because you had to be able to talk to you know very different… scientists from all these different disciplines. You know, I was working with engineers, I was working with sort of like structural and chemical engineers and computer vision engineers and physicists and biologists. And you know everybody was coming from someplace different so half, it was like, your job is to figure out how [distorted] works and how we can you know help it work better. It was a very cool idea of kind of like, take these disparate kind of fields and throw them together with a whole new problem.
YATTAH: I am wondering, because we have these questions a lot in my lab and with other colleagues, if it was worth it to do the postdoc? Because many people are now thinking that doing the postdoc is a way of losing time. Because they think companies are hiring directly from PhD’s or directly Master’s students and they think they’re losing time. What do you say… would you agree with that or disagree with that? And what would you recommend to PhD students that are rather deciding to do a postdoc or going directly to industry?
REYNERTSON: You know I think it’s a very personal choice. And I think it’s sort of a case by case. It’s one of those things where I think about, thought about a lot and I’ve had these questions before from people. And I really think it depends. It depends where you are personally and it depends on like your ultimate goals. And then you know some of the positions depend on timing. And I don’t know it’s just, there’s so many different aspects. There could be jobs that are available right when you finish you know your PhD and there you go you know. But it might not be and you know I think for me, when I was finishing my PhD, I was you know again, I still had this idea that like, well if you’re going into academia then you need the postdoc.
The postdoc certainly helped me you know when I was getting my job. I don’t know if I would have been quite as strong a candidate for the job that I got because I hadn’t added that other layer of you know training and so for me I think it was actually, it was definitely beneficial. And I’ve actually told people, I’ve heard some people who you know, or even going into PhD programs. When I was a postdoc I remember talking to a new graduate student who was like, “I want to finish my PhD as quickly as possible and get into industry.” And I thought, “if that’s really your goal then maybe you should just get a Master’s and go straight into industry.” Like maybe, you know, it’s not important. I think depending on like the industry, there is, there can sometimes be these you know, glass ceilings if you’re a Master’s versus a PhD but I don’t think…
REYNERTSON: Once you’re in a company, whether you have that postdoc experience or not isn’t going to… it’s not mattering as much.
REYNERTSON: But I think it’s a wholly personal decision.
YATTAH: Ok, that’s good to know. On your career transition from academia to the industry, do you think… was it hard for you to transition like did you have to change a lot of habits in your life? How was it personally for you?
REYNERTSON: It was a big life change in a way and part of that was just simply moving you know. I sort of didn’t expect to ever leave New York City and I also had a, like most people who live in New York City, I had a bad attitude about New Jersey. *laughs* I mean to be fair when I came out, basically out here where I am and I saw that like, oh this is like…this is the Garden State. You know like there is these parts of the state that are like beautiful so you know, I didn’t have a… suddenly that sort of fell into place. But yeah, like leaving New York, leaving the city there was a moment thinking about working on cancer, do I want to change what I’m working on entirely? You know and I, one of the things I remember thinking about was, I’m going to be going from focusing on a very small sort of problem, like looking at a very specific pathway and trying to elucidate little pieces of biochemical pathways and mechanisms to working on stuff that will be in millions of peoples’ homes all around the world.
And I thought, “there’s something very cool about that.” And I think that that was… it helped in understanding that this is like just a different way of using science. And I, you know, think as long as I felt like everything I was doing is still on a sort of science-based, evidence-based, data-driven, it was still compelling, you know. And the other thing I sort of realized, maybe I realized this more after I moved into my position, was the possibilities and the opportunities even with just within the company were incredible you know. That it wasn’t just sort of taking a job and being an assistant professor, associate professor, professor you know within the same discipline or field you know. You can certainly change your research program but I was suddenly like, “oh, I can take on so many different kinds of roles.” And I have moved out of that lab position and into a really different role. And I think that, you know being able to use the science in very different ways you know was another very compelling and interesting feature about going into you know, especially a large company. I think what I hear from people sometimes too is that in small companies, you end up… you might be the scientist there but even in small companies you know, you end up doing lots of different kinds of jobs and working very closely with lots of different kinds of people.
YATTAH: Right, people tend to think that in the industry you just do one job, everyday from 9 to 5, like nonstop the same job. But no, you have different positions and stuff where you can be at right?
REYNERTSON: Yeah, and it’s like ultimately I was in that position for about three years and then a few years ago I moved, transitioned to a completely different area. Now my job is policy-related so what I’m doing now is really sort of using my science to create strong evidence-based policy around, you know, about [distorted] and the things we use in our products. So now I’m trying to sort of basically take science and data and evidence and apply it to making the right decision. And it’s a different way of approaching being a scientist. But for me it’s been a really amazing sort of change and it was one of the things that was like, “I never knew you could have a job like this” when I was going through grad school. You know I think that’s one of the things I’ve seen is like oh there are millions of different kinds of jobs you can have, you know, have after your PhD. And I think… that we don’t even know about. And I’ve had some, you know, interns that have you know come while they’re you know in school and work for a summer. And I’ve seen like, there’s a lot more academic programs out there that are encouraging people to you know, take steps to get internships and go out into the workforce to see what kind of jobs are out there. And I don’t know that, you know I think that’s like a new thing for a lot of programs. And that’s a really fabulous thing.
YATTAH: That’s interesting, though, because personally me I had no idea, I have no idea what are the different possibilities after the PhD. As you were saying, like policy-related jobs, first of all I have no idea what it was and second like, a person like me can do a job like this. So to wrap up this interview, what would you recommend to a student that wants to transition to industry? Would you recommend to him or her to explore, do internships, to ask, to talk with people in industries what the possible jobs are available? How do you recommend like recent graduates to transition from academia to industry? And to search for those kinds of jobs?
REYNERTSON: Yeah I would say all of that. I mean I think one of the great you know… we have a lot of pools out there for like ways of networking and I think that’s a really, really important thing. I mean I know people say that all the time but, you know when you go to meetings, even when I was going to national conferences, you know there was a number of people, companies who have lots of natural product, you know divisions or groups. There were industry people there. And I think, talk to them about their jobs and find out, you know, what opportunities exist there. There’s a lot of… a lot of companies have postdoc opportunities. There’ll have internships and co-ops. And they love having, I mean it’s like, I love having those people come in for short periods of time to work on certain projects. Because it’s like I learn as much as they do. I get a whole new fresh perspective from somebody who is sort of younger and eager and interested in that sort of topic. So those things are there. Companies have those opportunities and I think, you know, reach out to people, you know. Use things like LinkedIn you know, and use those meetings you normally go to and find out what’s out there. And you know just constantly be poking. Poking, poking, poking.
But I think you know and another crucial thing is like don’t sort of limit yourself to you know, just your lab work and your scientific coursework. I think one of the things that I wish I had taken advantage of a little bit more is you know, when you’re a student at a university, you’re surrounded again by all these disciplines and it’s like, you can you know, find ways to collaborate with people across other disciplines. You know, even if it’s like, you know doing something like what you’re doing where you’re doing a podcast or you know you’re communicating scientific ideas. That’s a pretty, that’s an important thing. You know, being able to communicate this stuff, being able to know how to work with other people and so forth. And really like take full advantage of your university and seeing what else is available to you.
But also like any of those things that you do, I think like keep in mind that this concept of the transferrable skill. Like you know, you can take any experience that you’ve had in your life or in your work whether it’s a job or a volunteer position or something like that and you can say… you can find some skill that you learned from that and describe it in a way that would help you, you know, when you’re talking to prospective employer. You can say like, “well I’ve had this experience and that makes me a stronger candidate.” I think finding those ways to talk about any of your past experiences is you know, something new and interesting and exciting to an employer. I think those are, you know, important to keep in mind.
YATTAH: Ok this is really helpful for me. I really appreciate all your advice, all your sharing. I think this will help a lot of students and clarify their concepts on this transition and their future. Finally, would you like to add something else that we didn’t talk about? Anything extra you want to say to the students?
REYNERTSON: I would say, yeah, I mean good luck. It’s really, it’s a… The funny thing that I you know, I felt even when I was finishing with my thesis advisor, who was really not a whole, like a handful of years older than me kind of. And you know, I was maybe the third or fourth graduate student so you know, he was still, you know hadn’t been, you know relatively new in the job market. And I felt like as a student like, “wow, the job market I’m entering is a completely different one from his.” So there was a certain amount of like, I don’t know, like experiences are not going to be almost… I wouldn’t say not relevant but they were very different from what I was moving into. And so I think, you know, watch what your peers do, you know stay in touch with them. And just remember those middle couple years, those third and fourth years of the PhD program are just the worst. And you feel like nothing is working. *laughs* Once you plug through, suddenly, at the worse moment things will start to click and they fall into place and then it’s just a… then it’s just a fun ride towards the end. So yeah, good luck with all of it.
YATTAH: Thank you, thank you so much.
ABBIE TURNER, EDITOR, VOICE-OVER: Thanks again to Kurt for talking Camila about industry. If you’d like to explore some of your options for a career like Kurt’s, make an appointment with one of our career advisors or visit our website at cuny.is/careerplan. You can find a list of our upcoming events there and also follow us @CareerPlanGC. Thanks for listening!
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