As Laura Lau was nearing the end of her graduate work in the Department of Immunology at the University of Washington, she faced the question that most research scientists ask themselves at some point in their careers: Should I stay in academia, continuing my research at a university lab, or should I pursue a career in industry, and the opportunity to work on potentially life-saving medicines at a biotech company?
To help make that decision, Lau joined one of the first cohorts of Amgen's Postdoctoral Fellows Program in 2016. The program started in 2015 to provide up-and-coming scientists with research opportunities and an introduction to the biotech industry. Postdoctoral fellows typically spend two to four years in these paid roles as they pursue research projects with guidance from a mentor.
"My lab experience was always in academia, and I was interested to see how research translates into therapies in an industry setting," says Lau, who works at Amgen's research facility in the biotech hub of South San Francisco. "The postdocs at Amgen come from different backgrounds, but we all came here because we want to learn more about the industry side of research and drug development."
Sharing insights and experiences at Amgen's upcoming postdoc conference
One aspect of the program that postdocs look forward to every year is the Amgen Postdoc Conference, which is taking place Nov. 4 and 5 as a virtual conference for 2020. The two-day event provides postdocs the opportunity to connect with their colleagues, engage with speakers from across the biotech industry and share their projects with their fellow postdocs and Amgen's senior scientists.
"In the past, a highlight of the conferences has been the poster sessions because a lot of Amgen 's senior scientists attend and you can walk around to see what everyone is working on," says David Sherman, who was a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology before coming to the program at Amgen headquarters in Thousand Oaks with Ray Deshaies, senior vice president of Global Research. "This year, with the virtual format, I'm looking forward to hearing the speakers and the short presentations of each of the postdocs. "
For Joanne Dai, this year's conference will be her first since she joined the program at Amgen San Francisco in January because she wanted to gain industry experience researching scientific questions that could impact human health and medicine. She's currently working on characterizing a novel chemical compound that targets mismatches in the genomic DNA and can selectively kill cancer cell lines that have defective DNA repair.
"I 'm most looking forward to hearing about projects that postdocs at the other sites are working on," she says. "Even though it's virtual, we 're also trying to incorporate South San Francisco culture by having a Q&A panel with startup biotechs that participated in the Amgen Golden Ticket program and Janis Naeve from Amgen Ventures."
Pursuing peer-reviewed publication
Amgen's postdoc program has 36 R&D positions across research sites and functions, and there are five postdoc positions available in Process Development (PD). The standard length of time for R&D postdocs is three years, with the option of a fourth-year extension, and two years for those in PD.
For Lau, Sherman, Dai and their postdoc colleagues, one of the main objectives of their time in the program is pursuing impactful research that leads to publication in leading scientific journals. "The goal has always been to publish so you can share your research with the community," Lau says of her current submission to Nature Communications about her work on a novel gene and its role in systemic lupus erythematosus.
"I am currently in the revision stage following really positive feedback from reviewers," she adds. "Hopefully this publication can contribute to the scientific community and shed light on the connection between genetics and the pathology of this disease."
Since Amgen's program launched in 2015, postdocs have contributed to 30 peer-reviewed publications, presented at 27 external conferences and filed five invention disclosures. And 44 Amgen postdocs have made successful career transitions after finishing the program.
Finding the right career path
Along with providing the resources to conduct research that fits their scientific interests and objectives, the program also empowers postdocs to build the skills, expertise and networks they need to pursue their chosen career path, whether that's taking a permanent role at a large company like Amgen, joining a small biotech startup or returning to an academic institution.
"I still see myself going back to academia, but it is valuable for young scientists to get exposure to industry," says Sherman, who is researching how cells balance protein and lipid levels in the context of fatty liver disease. "The Amgen postdoc program is great because it provides the flexibility to do fundamental research separate from the pipeline while still interacting with scientists who are working on pipeline projects."
When Dai joined the Amgen postdoc program, she was undecided about whether she would return to academia or pursue a career in industry, and the program has already helped her decide. "I've really enjoyed the environment here: Everyone has clear goals in mind, it's a collegial atmosphere with experts in everything you can think of, and there are so many tools and resources available," she says. "I'm already convinced that industry is where I want to end up."
As one of the most senior postdocs in the program, Lau has also decided to pursue a career in drug development and is currently seeking her next role in the industry while finalizing her publication. "My mentor fully supports me in my ongoing work while encouraging me to pursue whatever opportunities that may arise," she says. "It's just a matter of whether I want to take a defined role at a large company like Amgen or have the chance to wear a lot of different hats at a smaller biotech company or startup."