Neuropsychology at Regeneron (feat. Susan Croll)
Alumni Aloud Episode 67
Susan Croll received her PhD from the Neuropsychology program at The Graduate Center. She is now the Director Emeritus of Regeneron’s Postdoctoral Program.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Susan talks to us about the similarities and differences between an academic and industrial postdoc position, how to transition from a PhD program into the biotech industry, and the collaborative, invigorating culture she found at Regeneron.
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.
CARLY BATIST, HOST: I’m Carly Batist, a PhD candidate in Biological Anthropology here at the Graduate Center. I interviewed Dr. Susan Croll, who received her PhD in the GC’s Neuropsychology program. She is now the Director Emeritus of Regeneron’s Postdoctoral Program. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Susan tells us about the similarities and differences between an academic and industrial postdoc position, how to transition from a PhD into the biotech industry and the collaborative, invigorating culture she found at Regeneron. So to get us started off…you’re the Director of the Regeneron Postdoc Program. Can you explain a bit about the program and what your role in it is?
SUSAN CROLL, GUEST: Yes, so I’m actually not the Director anymore, I’m the Director Emeritus just as of this year. I was the founding director and the director for a number of years. Now we have David Glass who’s directing it, who’s also someone who had been at Regeneron in the early years. So my role now is mostly advisory and then I also am sort of the primary touch point for those postdocs who are more senior who started when I was the director and I kind of bring them through. But I’m also part of sort of the steering committee that oversees the whole program and its vision, as well as part of what we call the core committee that meets every week to talk about their progress and to discuss sort of day-to-day issues that that the postdocs might be struggling with. I think all of us consider ourselves mentors to the postdocs, so I would say that’s my number one role they. Of course they have their research mentor like any other science postdoc would have who is in the lab with them, who helps them with their research question. But we’re an independent source of feedback. And I also like to really spend a lot of time with them talking to them about their careers, their expectations any anxieties that they have as postdocs and to really help them set a path towards the future.
BATIST: You’ve kept ties with academia, even while you’ve been at Regeneron, particularly at Queens College. So why did you want to keep feet in both doors, academia and industry, and how do you think those roles kind of feed off of each other?
CROLL: Yeah so the reason that I personally like to have some feet in both doors. There are a couple of reasons, one is that I really like having the opportunity to interact with students and to help them as they go along their path. I think that for a lot of students in academia, I actually present a unique resource in that I have been in both environments and can really give them feedback about what the opportunities and challenges are in both environments, so that each researcher can decide what the best path is. I think that that’s an important perspective to give people. I also just really enjoy the energy and the idealism and so on that tends to come with a really early scientist and enjoy helping them. I think both kinds of research are super important.
And I think that it’s not just me who tends to keep a little bit of a foot or contact in both. I think that a lot of scientists at Regeneron, in particular, and in industry in a broader sense, like to do that. And also Regeneron as a company does a lot of academic collaborations. And I think that the kinds of questions that are asked and the primary objectives in asking them differ just enough that what they’re exploring in a very basic sort of way can feed into both our basic mechanistic thinking. Also our perspective of helping improve human health and health care is really important for those in academia when they’re trying to understand when they think they have something that could accomplish that, how they would go about moving it to that next step. So I think there’s a really strong synergy there and I really like to ride that intersection.
BATIST: Yeah absolutely. Did you when you first went into the PhD plan on going on the professor track, staying in academia and how did that change or shift to become a more industry minded job search?
CROLL: Yeah so when I originally started in my program at The Graduate Center and at Queens College, my objective was to become a college professor. My father had been a college professor and I have a very similar personality to him. So I thought that would be a great career choice and I had a lot of interest in very basic questions. My dissertation was pursuing basic mechanisms of memory in the hippocampus and that was something I had a really strong interest in. And I think my perspective shifted a little bit in terms of what my options were and what kinds of power I could have to make things happen in the world based on two things.
One is that I was fortunate enough to decide to try to do my mechanistic training within the context of the NeuroPsych program at Queens, where I had a lot of exposure to clinical pathologies and what the biology of psychiatric diseases we’re and the basic problems were that arose from neurological diseases and as I studied those more and learned about those more I found them more and more fascinating and decided that I wanted my basic research to have a little bit more of a translational bend. That drift that was happening in my mind was really solidified when, at the time, my fiancé actually suffered a brain injury while I was in graduate school. And I ended up going back and forth seeing him in a rehab center where I really got immersed in the day-to-day workings of people trying to make a difference in brain injury. And seeing just how little was known about how to help people like this and what an incredible unmet need there was in the area.
And those two things kind of combined, the priming of the interest and then the horrible irony of having first-hand experience with just how little there was available really drove me to consider postdoctoral training that would get me prepared for that. And I did initially apply for postdocs both in academia and in industry but when I actually sat down with the mentors and talked to them about what the goal was, what I would learn, and what the overall all culture or driving force was behind the organization I’d be working with. I was just captured by Regeneron’s vision which I think is that if you take, really, really good scientists and you let them do really, really good science, they will improve the human condition. That just captured me right away.
BATIST: How did you end up landing that industry position after you did the postdoc? It seems like you probably wanted to stay at Regeneron but what was it like transitioning from the postdoc role to a more staff scientist role?
CROLL: Honestly it didn’t feel that different for me. I think probably these days it does feel a little bit different for our postdocs. But at that time Regeneron was very early, it was a startup biotech and everybody was just doing research on the bench. We didn’t have any approved drugs and we didn’t have that many things that were really clearly in clinical development. So the work that I was doing as a postdoc really continued on as I became a scientist. And we were really asking core mechanistic questions about how growth factors worked, what their biology was like, how they might help the brain that that was injured. So that that didn’t change at all.
Over time as Regeneron has (a) diversified what it works on because early on it was really just a neuroscience company and (b) has also grown to have many approved drugs, many things that are in clinical trials, so that we have what are called development programs. Those of us who are scientists still certainly ask a lot of basic mechanistic questions. But we also do a lot more work that’s driving things during those last stages towards really helping humans. And getting the opportunity to see that happen, which is pretty cool. So our current postdocs really work on very basic mechanistic questions and then we start to give projects that we really believe are headed in a shorter term at least, towards helping people.
BATIST: What do you think the major similarities and differences are between an industrial postdoc and a more traditional academic postdoc position?
CROLL: So I think the biggest difference is that our postdocs are very intimately exposed to the workings of a fully integrated biotech company. They get to attend seminars, go to meetings, talk to different scientists and really understand what the process is like. Understand what biotech is like from idea all the way through getting something approved and marketed. And because their mentors are regular scientists at Regeneron, they get to see firsthand what their lives are like, what their day-to-day accountabilities are, what drives them, what their challenges are, what are the things that excite them. And really get to experience for themselves firsthand what it would be like to be in this environment, so that they can make that kind of decision for themselves in their careers. I think that’s the biggest difference.
Another way in which a lot of industry postdocs experience it differently is that a lot of times the resources are a little richer. In terms of being able to take advantage of a lot of the most cutting-edge technologies and tools. Instead of being a lot of different separate labs we’re one big group. And even though we’re loosely organized into what we call therapeutic focus areas and tech centers, we really work together. So they get exposed to all these different really expert opinions and cutting-edge technologies that help them to do incredible projects. Our program does some things that are different than the sort of old, traditional academic postdoc, but I think that some academic postdoc programs are doing this last thing as well.
Which is to have a really structured programmatic element to the program. So we have a lot of didactic training, career workshops, the postdocs feel like a community. They meet with our senior leaders once a week and take turns going through their data and hearing the rigorous kinds of questioning that they get. In addition at Regeneron, if a postdoc has a relationship with a mentor that’s not working out ideally they’re really Regeneron postdocs. And that mentoring relationship can be easily changed, whereas I think most academic postdocs have actually applied to that one lab and that one mentor. So it gets a little bit harder to turn on a dime.
BATIST: Yeah the cohort kind of mentality, good to know that you’re not this singular postdoc in a lab. So what skills do you think translate well during a PhD to working in the biotech field more broadly? Like what should students be emphasizing or working on to get into that space and be successful?
CROLL: Well I’ll tell you the one thing they shouldn’t be working on is an MBA. I run into a lot of graduate students who have this feeling that, if they want to go into industry what they should really be working on is getting an MBA and taking drug development coursework and that’s really and truly not necessary from the perspective of most biotech companies. And I’ve had discussions with postdoc directors at a lot of the big pharma institutions as well, and they agree. What we definitely want in biotech is someone who’s courageous, creative and inventive. Innovation is really important in biotech because part of biotech is you know generating new ideas for ways of treating human disease but we use a lot of technology to do that.
And when people in biotech hit an obstacle, they don’t try to go around it or stop and take a different direction, but they try to innovate directly through it. That’s a core part of the culture I think. Researchers who feel like that’s exciting will really enjoy a biotech environment. I think the other thing that’s really important is a lot of scientific rigor. We have to do all the right controls and get converging evidence from multiple different ways of measuring or looking at things, recognize all the caveats and limitations of all of our tools and methodologies. Because if we get something wrong that’s human health, human lives, human hopes that are on the line. And even with the best rigor everyone’s going to get it wrong sometimes right because models fail to translate, species fail to translate. So I would say those two things really, rigor and innovation.
BATIST: Yes, and I imagine that it is also nice to not always be thinking about the next grant you have to write and have that not necessarily be at least your realm anymore?
CROLL: That is one thing that’s really nice, I mean we don’t spend a lot of our time writing grants. I know that for a lot of academic scientists, that becomes a lot of what they’re doing. I will caution, though, that in any scientific environment it is important that you be able to justify your work right. That you be able to build a strong scientific case for why you think something is interesting. It’s just that you don’t have to do it within the formal process of writing a grant and then having reviewers you can’t talk to. Rather you’re in a room with other people where you’re showing data and explaining why these data suggest that you should really move to the next step. And having an opportunity to answer the questions and really have them consider it. Or to have them really directly tell you what they think the drawbacks are or what data you’re still missing to justify that. So you never as a scientist completely escape having to sort of justify why you need resources to do something. It’s just a really different form that it takes. Much more about conversation and interrogating data and so on.
BATIST: Yeah, yeah. What is the application and interview process look like for an industry postdoc? Does it vary quite a lot between companies or is there kind of some general format that’s followed? Are there differences from like if you’re applying for an academic postdoc?
CROLL: There are there are some differences between companies for sure. And even we have actually two different approaches that we use and they represent I think the two different approaches that you’ll see represented throughout industry. So one approach is that [staff] scientists are gifted postdocs either because they have a really cool idea for a postdoc like project or because they’re just a really talented, motivated scientist who they think sort of deserves to have a trainee they think they’ll be a great mentor they think they have great ideas. And then advertising will go out for that one particular position. When that happens you tend to see on company websites the positions popping up at various times and being a little bit more specific about the projects that they’ll describe or the area of inquiry. Some companies use exclusively that approach, some use a mixture of approaches like we do, but that is one of the approaches. And it sounds more traditionally the way an academic postdoc is recruited.
The other approach which we also take and this is our bigger process, is where you just put out a call for applications once or twice a year. So anyone who wants to do a postdoc in anything biomedicine can apply. And we go through a really rigorous triaging process to sort of limit it down to a smaller subset of the applicants. We’ll then phone screen, and this is I think not uncommon, by the way for other companies who do it this way. And we’ll then bring on site or virtual now during the pandemic and have them give a job talk, a seminar. Get them asked a lot of questions, talk to a bunch of people. Usually get a sense of who the different mentors. And we’ll just make offers to the best people. Sometimes it’s just top five or top 10 that get offers and sometimes there’s some consideration made to areas. So if your top 10 are all immunologists and you don’t want to put 10 new postdocs all into immunology you might mix it up a little. And that varies a little bit from company to company. And then they’ll get the offers and then after the fact they can work on getting the mentor that they would like to have. Some companies will do it by rotation, just like graduate programs and some ask you to pick the person right away so you can delve in. And that’s what we usually do.
I would say in terms of applying one piece of guidance, is that you really should be submitting a full academic CV. That is going to be judged the same way it would for an academic postdoc. What we really want to see is that you’ve driven a project and you’ve managed to publish it. And we understand, and I think most companies do, that if you’ve done your graduate work pretty quickly that it might be something that has just been submitted and that’s fine you know, we’ll chat with you. People love to see engagement with the field. Maybe had some abstracts and presentations and so on. Just some evidence that you’ve engaged more broadly, that you’ve tried to network.
I think all companies should, but hopefully do, really take into consideration the resources of the institution and the lab as well. It’s not about just the numbers but we do want to see some evidence of high-quality productivity. For our program the one extra thing we do, and I know some programs do this and some don’t, is that we do ask some questions. We have some essay questions. The reason that we do that is it really helps us to differentiate between people who have one really great paper because their mentor said here do this project and then help them write up the paper, and a graduate student who really has good ideas of their own. Those essays are designed for us to get a window into the way that person thinks.
BATIST: Yeah this sounds basically similar to if you were applying to a regular non-postdoc position at a biotech company as well. Seems like the process is basically the same.
CROLL: It is, but I can’t emphasize enough full academic CV. It’s really often the case that people get the bad information that since they’re applying to a company, they need to submit a one-page resume. That really is not helpful to us. You need a CV, we need to see where all your publications are, what all the things are that you’ve done.
BATIST: Right, yeah. So is it typical for industry postdocs to then stay in the company that they did that with that? Is there sort of a, not established, but like well-oiled pipeline there? Or do people go elsewhere, do they go into different departments in the same company? What are some of the trajectories that people take?
CROLL: There are a lot of different trajectories I will say that, after having spoken to the postdoc program directors of a lot of different companies, most of them do not hold the perspective that their postdocs should necessarily stay in their company. And some of them actually have written policies forbidding that. They want them to go on and do something different next. Part of that is about setting expectation and part of it is about diversifying peoples’ scientific experiences. The reality of that, though, is that some people do stay with the company they did a postdoc with. Regeneron’s policy is that we have no automatic rollover. If you’re a postdoc at Regeneron that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a position at Regeneron. But we don’t have any policy forbidding that and our postdocs who are interested in staying have to apply for open positions. We are in a growth phase so often they found open positions.
Some of them choose to apply for open positions within the same area they’re working with and some of them actually apply for open positions that they’ve learned about by being there in the environment. They’re like “oh well I was working in immunology but I really was thought it was fascinating what the oncology group was doing or got really interested in what a tech center was doing.” Because they’ve had an opportunity to learn about all of them. We also, and I think a number of industry postdoc programs do the same thing, we really encourage them to explore career paths more diversely. Most of them will remain as scientists in one way or another. But we do have postdocs who occasionally fall in love with something a little bit different. And either end up remaining at Regeneron in a different kind of role or applying externally for that kind of role. One example is medical and scientific writing.
BATIST: Yeah, another popular draw for grad students. Should you, when you submit an industry postdoc application, is it better to stick with what you were doing in the PhD? Is it okay to shift gears and shift lanes and how do you present that in an application?
CROLL: I think if you’ve become interested in something different than what you’re doing, I think a postdoc is a fantastic opportunity to explore that. And a lot of our postdocs do. I think that either in the cover letter, or if you get the advantage of essays, it is important to make your goals known. If you don’t sound like you have any particular goal as someone who says “oh I don’t really care what I work on.” That can actually be a bad idea. I think people like to have some idea that you know what interests you. But it doesn’t have to be the same thing you were working on.
It’s ok if it was, great just say that. But if you’re a neuroscientist and you started working on microglia and now you’re interested in immunology, say that too. Just be very clear about that. This is the time to do it because once you get to the point where you’re applying for your first full-time job it is really hard to change there right. Because they want someone who has some background and expertise in that area at that point. So the postdoc is the perfect time to make that transition And I know we certainly welcome that. We give them an opportunity to explore all different departments and questions and projects and find the one that really fires them up.
BATIST: That’s great. What is the culture like? What kind of a team do you work within, what’s the structure of it and would that differ between a more established place like Regeneron or a startup for example? How does that kind of culture relate to maybe what someone had experienced in a PhD?
CROLL: Yeah I think the culture is really unique to each company. And I think that’s where you kind of need to do your leg work. I think in general biotechs tend to be a little bit more technological and more exploratory. But I think exploring the culture is important. You can get clues about culture either by talking to people who are there or listening to things like this, which a lot of companies put out or subscribe to their Twitter feed and see the kinds of things they throw out there. Our culture is a real science geek culture. We let scientists be scientists and play with new ideas and new technologies and it’s okay if they crash and burn. Things that are really passed on to us by our CEO and CSO as important things to remember are that mistakes are a learning opportunity. So it’s okay to take risks and to twiddle around with things and try to get it right.
Data drives all decisions. We’re not afraid to tip over the apple cart and say something different than what other people have been saying in the literature or what other people think is the next logical step. All of our decisions, all of our projects, all of our priorities are based on the data. Wherever the data are the strongest, that’s what we do. But we do like to have fun too. We have our little parties, we have our ice cream truck in the summer on Thursdays that pulls up. So we do try to make it be a fun environment. It’s a very family kind of feel. I know our CEO has really the philosophy that you want your employees to feel like they’re part of something important, you want them to feel like a community. And our CSO always makes us feel like we’re working towards something together. So that’s really our culture, and every culture is a little different.
BATIST: I imagine that what you’re describing would be a refreshing change from the singular PhD, this is your project. It can be a somewhat lonely process. This very much team environment is probably a refreshing shift.
CROLL: Oh it really is! Everyone is encouraged to speak up, it’s just really free thinking. It’s pretty invigorating I have to say.
BATIST: That’s awesome. Last question, more of a forward thinking one. What do you think is exciting in the biotech world in the next couple of years and how has maybe the pandemic shifted targets or timelines within Regeneron or just the biotech and pharma industries?
CROLL: So I think the three things that personally excite me the most… One thing just specific to me as a neuroscientist, is I see the next horizon for neuroscience and neurodegenerative disease. I can see the light at the end of that tunnel and I can imagine a decade or two from now really having a handle on all neurodegenerative diseases. But as an industry, I think the most exciting things that I see are the courage of the biotech industry to explore modalities more broadly and not to be limited. To really start to think more broadly about all different ways, like proteins and oligonucleotides and genetics and editing. All these different ways that we can help human health and as part of that, really starting to look from the human on down so that we understand exactly where the core problem is in the human. We’re starting to really develop the tools to do that across different approaches or modalities. And I think the other thing that I’m really excited about is the speed with which these things can be done now. And I think that partially because of the pandemic, but also just because of the progress of science and technology, I see that we’ve challenged ourselves as an industry to make these things happen [faster].
BATIST, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Susan for sharing her experience as an industry postdoc program director. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every 2 weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe via Apple or Google and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening!
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