You’ve been at NIDCR for about five years. What have you been studying?
I’ve been studying the binding of the extracellular matrix (ECM) protein fibronectin to integrins, a family of membrane-bound protein receptors. The two are critical for the adhesion of cells to surfaces, allowing tissue growth and development, and a range of other basic biological processes. Because tumors typically must degrade the ECM and also use integrins to metastasize, the interaction of these two proteins is of great interest in cancer research. My main project has involved working with altered forms of this fibronectin-integrin binding. The alterations affect the ability of the integrins to remodel fibronectin. The challenge has been to define biochemically why the remodeling is defective, and that’s what I’ve been working out.
Hasn’t fibronectin been studied for many decades?
That’s right. A lot is known about fibronectin; but a lot remains unknown about the molecule, too. So, the project has been very challenging for me and definitely intellectually stimulating. I figured out important biochemical mechanisms of how integrins regulate cell matrix formation. I published those discoveries. So it was doubly exciting to find out something new and have it published.
Where were you prior to coming to NIDCR?
At college in Massachusetts. I did my undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. As an undergrad, I had a double major in chemistry and biochemistry/molecular biology. Then, I got my Ph.D. at UMass in molecular and cellular biology.
When you got your Ph.D., what did you want to do?
I wasn’t exactly certain at that point. I knew that I wanted to pursue a scientific career either in industry or with the government. But my heart told me that a career in industry might be the better fit for me.
Because I want to see my work directly benefit people. In a research laboratory, you can do phenomenal work, but it may take 10 or 20 years before that research actually reaches the marketplace and ultimately benefits people. But I didn’t have to make my decision immediately. These days, you need postdoctoral experience to do anything in science, whether you want to be in academia or industry. So that was my next step.
And that’s what led you to NIDCR?
Yes. Bruce Jacobson, my advisor in graduate school, mentioned some of the prominent scientists in my area of study. That was signaling, cell biology, and extracellular matrix. He mentioned NIDCR’s Ken Yamada, so I e-mailed him my resume. Ken asked me to send three letters of recommendation. I did, and he invited me for an interview and to give a talk. After that, he asked me to join the lab. That was in November 2004.
How has the mentoring been?
Very good. It’s suggested here that you have two mentors. Your primary mentor, a secondary mentor, and even a third mentor. With Ken and my other mentors, they have an open-door policy. I’ll just go into their offices and talk to them. Most importantly, Ken gave me the flexibility to chase my muse while I’ve been here at NIH.
And your interests are many?
Exactly. As an undergrad, I balanced two science majors with a minor in economics. But that’s just me. I’ve always had a passion for learning, and that’s why NIH has been such a great fit for me as a post doc. In the laboratory, I have my main project to keep me rolling from day to day. But I’ve also collaborated on a number of interesting projects that have greatly expanded my understanding of biology. And then, I’m surrounded by a lot of really smart people here. Our lab and branch meetings are fantastic venues to learn about the latest science.
How have you chased your muse outside the laboratory?
I can’t count the number of seminars and classes that I’ve taken at NIH. I think the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (www.training.nih.gov) is phenomenal. By that, I mean the office’s ability to organize the seminars that post docs want and letting us know what, when, and where they are. I get e-mails virtually every day that announce an upcoming talk, class, or seminar.
But how have the NIH classes advanced your interest in pursuing a career in industry? Wouldn’t NIH promote careers in traditional academic research only?
No, not at all. And that’s really my point. The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education covers all of the bases. If you’re interested in a career in academia, there are resources to walk you through writing a research grant, how to run a laboratory, and effective technical writing. You name it. If you’re interested in a career in industry, they’ve got you covered, too. There are all kinds of classes, from patent law to tech transfer to regulatory affairs. But you must be proactive and really go out and find what’s right for you. That’s the key.
How did you find what’s right for you?
By making it a priority. While doing my post doc, I also carved out time in my schedule to participate in a new NIH program for staff interested in earning a technology-transfer certificate. The program includes classes in negotiations, business development for scientists, management strategies, and a whole range of other issues. I should mention that as part of the certification program, I did a student internship with a non-profit called The Center for New Technology Enterprise. The internship gave me real-world experience in dealing with clients and working with entrepreneurs.
So, you’ve been very busy.
I’ve been real busy, but in a very positive way. All of this activity has given me a much-needed overview of medical product development. In fact, it’s the NIH classes that got me interested in a career in regulatory affairs.
That’s right, you’ll soon be leaving NIDCR to take part in the FDA Commissioner’s Fellows Program. Tell me how you went from a busy NIDCR post doc to a soon-to-be FDA fellow.
The story begins with the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. While taking classes, I met a lot of experts from industry and other science and healthcare sectors. It gave me a chance to talk with them and ask questions - how do you like your career? What do I need to do to get into regulatory affairs?
What did they tell you?
Go to the FDA [laughing]. That’s when other colleagues and class members mentioned the FDA Commissioner’s Fellows Program, and I decided to apply. It’s the best program out there to train in regulatory affairs.
How competitive is it to receive the fellowship?
Extremely competitive. The FDA receives over a 1,000 applications each year for about 50 to 60 fellowship positions. This year, they accepted 55 to 60 fellows. That boils down to about a 5-percent acceptance rate.
How long did you have to wait for the good news?
Let’s see, I started preparing the application in January and submitted it in March. I had to wait for three or four months to find out whether I had gotten an interview. I finally got the e-mail three or four months later that congratulated me on making the first cut. I was one of only 160 applicants that they’d called back for an interview.
And that’s when you went back to class.
Right. Before I interviewed at the FDA, I went through mock interviews with the counselors in the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. That really helped me in the interview process.
So, in helping you improve your interview skills, was it, ‘Sit down, and we’ll give you 20 minutes’? Or was it, ‘Sit down, and take as long as you want. We want to get this right’?
Oh, it was take as much time as you like. She asked me actual interview questions, and I would practice my responses. Depending on how I answered her questions, she would give me feedback on how to better frame my answers.
And it paid off?
Absolutely. I interviewed with a group that does work on contact lenses, and we just hit it off. We really picked each other. I was a chemistry major as an undergrad and did some work as a grad student in materials science, so it’s a really good fit.
What will you be doing specifically?
About three or four years ago, a lot of people developed infections from wearing certain types of contact lenses. It actually almost drove a company out of business. So, I’ll be testing different types of contact lenses with different solutions to see how compatible those solutions are with respect to their disinfectant properties and how well microbes can colonize and grow on them.
Where might the fellowship lead?
It will either lead to a position at the FDA or to a position in industry doing regulatory science, regulatory affairs, project management.
So, you’re right where you want to be?
Thanks for sharing your post doc experience.