Regulatory Panel Summary: Boston University

Author: Senegal N. Carty
First-year Ph.D. student at Boston University School of Medicine

If you’ve ever imagined making a great discovery or coming up with an extraordinary invention, your fantasy probably included the thrill of the initial finding and the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor appear in prestigious journals or even the news. However, I am guessing you rarely imagine the fastidious steps required to get to the final destination.

The steps between idea and profit include miles of red tape—protecting your ideas and ensuring that credit is given as well as communicating your work to people at regulatory agencies whose green light you’d need to put your product on the market. For these steps, you need professionals with the technical knowledge who can become familiar with your discovery and craft the necessary documents, which will be your tickets past each checkpoint on the way to success.

As the idea that all graduate students should aim for positions in academia loses its grip on the scientific community, more and more Ph.D. students aspire to be one of these skilled professionals.  Boston University’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BU’s BEST) program has helped to propagate awareness of these jobs by holding a panel discussion on careers in law, compliance, and regulatory affairs (moderated by Dr. Barbara Schreiber). At this event, Dr. Matthew Pavao, partner at the law firm Cooley, LLP, Dr. Katherine Kopeikina, technical specialist at the intellectual property law firm DT Ward, PC, and Dr. Tracey Tucker Zhou, senior medical writer at bluebird bio, shared their paths from graduate studies to their current positions. The panelists, all of whom are Ph.D. alumni of BU, also talked about the challenges and joys of working in their respective fields and gave insider tips on how to leverage one’s time in graduate school to become a competitive job applicant.

After working as a postdoc at Northwestern University, Dr. Kopeikina moved away from academia. She is interested in a wide range of scientific topics, she has excellent time management skills, and she enjoys reading and writing so with the help of an acquaintance, she entered the world of patent law and discovered that a position as a technical specialist was an excellent fit for her.  Dr. Kopeikina stressed the importance of having good interpersonal skills, which often requires dealing patiently with demanding clients.

In many respects, the qualities of a good technical specialist also apply to Dr. Pavao, who focuses on intellectual property law, and Dr. Tucker Zhou, who is a senior medical writer. Both careers require excellent writing skills and avid curiosity about science; they also require the ability to meet tight deadlines and satisfy exacting clients.

Dr. Pavao described the pace of his work by saying, “If you’re a muscle fiber, and you’re a slow-twitch muscle fiber, you have no chance of success”! He learned to balance family life with frequent travel and an endless stream of emails, and has no regrets about leaving academia. After discovering the possibility of a career in law, a colleague put Dr. Pavao in contact with an attorney whose firm was recruiting life science degree holders and allowing them to attend law school at night. He joined this firm as a technical specialist and worked his way up. He advised the audience members hoping to enter this career to gain a working knowledge of principles of business and learn about current affairs in the business world. He also encouraged networking through informational interviews and advised taking the patent bar exam before applying to demonstrate a desire to succeed in the field.

Dr. Tucker Zhou compared some aspects of her work to ‘cat-herding’ – she gleans expertise and reports from different specialists and manages her team to create documents such as reports on clinical trials for submission to regulatory agencies. When asked what motivated her transition from a postdoc at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to medical writing, she spoke about her desire to remain in science while moving away from the bench. She told attendees that a strong background in molecular biology is important in medical writing, and stated that although a postdoc is not necessary, it can be useful if it shows your ability to learn different fields. Since collaboration is so important in her job, she explained, industry experience can be a plus for aspiring medical writers.

It was clear that for the avidly listening attendees, Drs. Tucker Zhou, Kopeikina, and Pavao were wellsprings of information on how to move toward careers in their respective fields. The questions from the audience came in a steady stream, and each panelist gave a glimpse into a fascinating career that many graduate students were unaware of.

This and other events organized by BU’s BEST, however, are helping us take strides toward widespread awareness of the versatility of a Ph.D.

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