From Biomedical Engineering PhD to the Pharmaceutical World | Interview with Carrie Brubaker, PhD

This interview has been condensed for length. For the full interview, watch the video.

Chris: So it’s my privilege today to introduce Carrie Brubaker, PhD. She has an MS and PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Northwestern. She’s had roles in science policy, education, she did postdoc work with cancer bioengineering. She’s also had roles in product development, project management, and she moved to Gilead sciences as a senior manager of medical affairs for oncology and cell therapy. And now she works freelance doing scientific engagement and medical comms.

So, I want to talk about your journey. Could we start with you in academia?

Carrie: Absolutely. I think I want to take it even a step further back, because there’s a step even prior to my graduate work that has, I realized, informed some of the things that have come after. So when I was coming to the end of my undergrad (I received a bachelor’s of biochemistry and French from UCLA) I was coming to the end of my undergrad, and I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school because, at the time, I really loved the science, I really loved the lab. I was particularly drawn to polymer chemistry and biomaterials.

But I knew that I didn’t want to go directly to graduate school. Through the French department I ended up finding a role where the French ministry of Education takes on ESL Instructors who are not necessarily professional teachers for a year-long program to work on their underserved school districts.

I ended up applying and getting selected for the program. So, in the year following my undergrad, I picked up and moved to France, which was an amazing opportunity for a person in their early 20s to be able to do.

I had a wonderful time teaching elementary school kids English. But really it was the opportunity for me to perfect my French, because I was the only Anglophone for kilometres around.

I then returned to the U.S. to undertake my joint master’s and PhD in biomedical engineering at Northwestern in Evanston and Chicago Illinois. That whole program took about six years because it’s a joint program. I had an excellent experience, really enjoyed my research, and enjoyed it so much that I knew that I wanted to continue.

I had a plan to become a faculty member, I enjoyed the science component, the mentoring component, and the teaching component.

The recruitment process for post-doctoral research in the biomedical sciences is often not straightforward. It has a lot to do with relationships with the senior faculty who supervised you or who have been on your committee, you’ve met at conference, and so forth. So, in that regard, I like to think that I was really relatively successful.

I went to work at the EPFL in Lausanne Switzerland in the area of nano biomaterials for bioengineering. As you alluded to, my postdoctoral training went on for about four years.

And I think even then part of my brain knew that something different was going to happen. Because there were times when–

Should I have been designing research project?

And should I have been updating my lab notebook?

Yes, I should have.

Did I do that a lot? Yes, I did.

But what I also did was pursue additional training opportunities, for example, more if these kind of learning and development type things. Things like negotiation tactics, let’s say or the design of adult learning.

This makes sense if you want to become a professor, but there was also a part of it that had more to do with, “How do we actually engage people? How do we help people learn?”

And that’s a really important skill completely independent of, let’s say, an academic learning environment. Then, ultimately, by the end of my by postdoctoral programs, for a variety of reasons, it became clear that the past vision that I had been working on — which was to become a faculty at an R1 institution — just wasn’t the direction that things were going to go. I found myself in a situation that perhaps a lot of us have found ourselves in. And I had to ask myself, “Okay, what now?”

Chris- So when you  started to develop your ability to think more about opportunities outside of Academia, and they start to shift your mind a little bit and expand your horizons as to what you might do with this, what effect did those side training (in negotiations, adult ed, etc.) have on you?

Carrie: You know, I when I look back on it, it feels like I still don’t know what the answer is.

Was the interest (in non-academic skills) always there and going after it helped develop it? Or was it just kind of completely random event that fell from the sky?

Let’s say that the outcome was a bit of a snowball effect. I participated in the negotiations training, I participated in the design of adult learning training program, I completed a project management certification. As you rightfully point out, opening each little window opened a little door, and prompted some additional thinking about, “Oh, okay. I really like this part of it. I know that I don’t like that part of it.”

And completely independent of the work that I love and the science that I love and the projects that were, I would say, amazing, I’m really grateful that I gave myself the opportunity to do a little bit something different to dedicate that service of 10% or 15% to something else besides my existence in a laboratory

Chris: So, when did the time come that you knew you had to leave academia?

Carrie: There were a couple of factors that were involved that were both external and internal. I would say realistically, if I want to encompass the whole experience, it probably took place over about six months. There were a lot of “Sunday night scaries” kind of thinking – and I think we’ve all been there – the sort of existential questions, and tendency to push it down and not think about it. But finally, realizing that this is actually standing for something and I need to respect it for what it is… 

Chris: In terms of in terms of starting to move forward, what were the first steps you took to start to make that transition? Once it was time to leave what where did you go from there?

Carrie: As you alluded to I certainly called upon those initial experiences (of doing non-academic training) and even used the opportunity to, let’s say, reconnect with people that I did the programs with — other participants or I even also connected with the moderators of those programs that I felt some kind of rapport or connection with, or had stayed in touch.

To start to talk it through with people. And, you know, another layer of challenge is a that when I was going through this process I was living in another country. I was on a Visa, not a citizen of the country.

So there was an additional layer of complication, that I needed to find employment so that I could say here, if indeed this is where I want to be for now. So that was also a part of the decision process, not only changing directions but also thinking about where I wanted to do that.

At that time, I looked at the ensemble of my personal and professional life and realize that I wanted to make a go of it in Switzerland.

And that very simply involved the topic, Chris, that you and I have addressed somewhat significantly recently: which is networking.

I had to pick myself up. Put the big-girl pants on and start reaching out to people who had recently gotten jobs who I knew from my academic environment — whether that was an industry, hospital setting, project management, or even consulting.

And I really wrote a lot of emails and made a lot of phone calls and tried to meet people for coffee — this was of course when we could work face-to-face — and ultimately it was thanks to that combination of proactive reach-out and network engagement that I got my two subsequent roles while I was living in Switzerland.

Chris: As you’ve already alluded to it was difficult to connect to people. Like it wasn’t just super easy to take kind of connect with people or to swallow pride, or to do whatever it takes to reach out to people?

Carrie: It definitely does.  I feel very much about networking like I do about interviewing. You know, these are two different experiences, but there is a lot of psychological overlap. You feel like you *have to put on a show*

And I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. Do you have do you have to be your most authentic and professional self? Absolutely. But no one’s going to come in with a hook off the side of the stage if you mess up a little bit, if you mispronounce something, if you stumble. I think that people are nervous to make a mistake in those settings or to stumble somehow.

And if there’s a way that that that can be overcome, honestly, I think it’s just a practice. I was total crap at networking when I first started, just like I was told crap at interviewing when I first started, and I did not get it right the first five or 10 times even, but it is so completely worth it in the end to keep practicing and keep putting yourself out there. I can’t speak highly enough about the value of networking and just giving it a go.

Chris: Can you tell us a little bit about the first role outside of Academia and what you were doing?

I went through a period of freelancing and contract positions, which I now of course realize is extremely coincidental that I’ve returned freelancing. It had completely to do with the fact that I cold emailed the managing directors of this organization. So I was interested already in the concept of scientific and medical communications. I mean, I’d done, academic publications, and grant writing, and even patents. I’ve done all of that, you know what I mean, and I thought how hard can it be? 

I found out that it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that, but I thought, “This is something that I’m good at. I enjoy the communications component: publications, getting the word out, communicating data effectively, that sounds like something that’s meaningful to me.”

So I reached out here and there, and I cold-emailed the managing directors of a medical communications and medical education agency located outside of Basel Switzerland. And they asked me to do some short-term work with them, basically as sort of like a junior project manager, that was in support of some programming and some congresses that they were helping their big Pharma clients to support.

It worked out quite well and gave me gave me the opportunity to experience a completely different environment and also have a first exposure to how pharmaceutical organizations run their show. So almost directly out of my postdoc I was already getting that kind of exposure

Chris: it sounds like it was a whole new world, not just more of the same. Is that a safe assumption?

Carrie: It was completely different.

I remember my very last day in the lab. I knew at that point that it was done, and I remember my last day in the lab being so bittersweet in a way. Because I had just I had done it for so many years. I started working in Labs back when I was in high school. It had been a long time

And then, on that day, I just sat in my hood and I was cleaning up my samples and I thought, “You know what? I am never going to do this again.”

That felt super weird at the time, but there was also the sort of dawning realization of, “Well, if I’ve enjoyed this for so long, and I’m good at it, there are going to be other things that I’m going to enjoy. I need to go and find out what those things are.”

It was terrifying! But if you can give yourself the freedom and the permission to go forward in that way, it makes such a difference. . .

Watch the video for the full interview

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