Off The Beaten Path: Nonacademic Careers of Neuroscience Graduates

Amy Mahan, Editor

Originally published May 2008.

In the past, graduates of the Emory Neuroscience program have been very successful at obtaining academic post-docs and then professorships at many prestigious universities. However, many of us are uncertain if we want to follow the traditional career path. Below are the profiles of three very successful alumni who have pursued other career paths. They highlight some of the many opportunities that are available to Emory graduates with a PhD in Neuroscience.

200805CS22Brenden Gingrich, Ph.D., 1999
Former Advisor: Tom Insel
Patent Attorney, Partner
Knobbe Martens Olson & Bear LLP

I completed my Ph.D. at Emory in August 1999. My advisor was Dr. Thomas Insel, who is now Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. My graduate work in his lab focused on the neurobiological basis of social attachments. We used prairie voles as an animal model of attachment, since they are one of the few rodents that form pair bonds after mating.

I became interested in patent law as a possible career path when one of my former professors at Emory left to join a law firm in Atlanta. He returned to talk to us about the possibility of law as an alternative career at about the time I was beginning to consider where to do my post-doctoral work. After looking into it more, and talking with a fellow graduate student who left the Ph.D. program early to attend law school, I decided law was a better fit for me.

After completing my Ph.D., I went to law school at the University of Virginia School of Law. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at UVA. I found that my graduate training had prepared me well for law school. While I didn’t have the background in history or policy that some of my classmates had, I found that the ability to think critically and reason well that graduate school had taught me more than made up for it.

In September of 2003, after finishing law school and a one-year clerkship for a federal judge, I started at Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear, LLP, a southern California-based intellectual property law firm . I was made partner at the firm in January of this year. My practice focuses on obtaining patents for the biotechnology and medical device industries. The majority of my time is spent trying to convince the Patent Office that my client’s inventions are patentable. Almost every patent application is rejected by the Patent Office the first time it is examined, usually based on the argument that someone else has already invented the same thing, or that the invention is an obvious extension of what is already known. In response, I prepare written arguments that are based on both the science of the invention, as well as patent laws. I enjoy the work because it is not focused on a single aspect of science like my graduate work – I currently represent clients with technology in the fields of antisense therapy, molecular biology and genetics, pharmaceuticals, intravascular ultrasound, blood purification, microfluid processing, and surgical fasteners. If you are considering a career in patent law, I invite you to take a look out our firm’s website at www.kmob.com.

200805CS23Gillian Hue, PhD, 2008
Former Advisor: David Rye
Posdoctoral Fellow: Science Education and Ethics, Emory University

I defended my dissertation on a Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday morning I reported for duty at my post doc position in the Program in Science and Society here at Emory. I guess I didn’t feel like I needed a day off because this is a job they probably could have convinced me to do for free.

I ended up in the graduate program in Neuroscience because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been curious about why (and how) we do the things we do; as cellular organisms, as individuals, as a society. As a grad student researcher, I worked in the laboratory of David Rye, who fostered and rewarded curiosity and allowed me the freedom to become involved in several educational opportunities. From a perspective of interdisciplinary research and teaching, I became increasingly interested in the interactions between science and society, how science is understood and perceived by Joe Everybody, and particularly how science is taught.

During my post doctoral fellowship I will be working on several projects that are related to Science Education and Ethics. In addition, a portion of my funding comes from the “Religion and Science” sub-section of the “Religions and the Human Spirit” Strategic Initiative of Emory University. Some of my projects will facilitate science and society dialogues and public outreach on divisive issues facing our society today, such as stem cell research, evolution and genetic engineering; issues which mark the overlap and interplay between scientific pursuits and religious tradition. Emory is uniquely positioned to explore this interplay given the rich resources and excellence in research and teaching in many of these areas.

This is an extremely unconventional career opportunity and I am thrilled to have found a post doctoral training fellowship which will allow me to integrate my varied interests in a way that will utilize my scientific research background with my teaching and curriculum development experience.

200805CS24Kelly Allers, PhD, 1997
Senior Principal Scientist, Pfizer Global
Former Advisor: David Rye and Jorge Juncos

From Emory, I moved on to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to take up a postdoctoral position with Judie Walters, investigating the neurophysiology of basal ganglia circuits. In 2000, I changed fields and countries to take up a further post-doctoral position with Trevor Sharp in the Department of Pharmacology of Oxford University in the United Kingdom. In Dr. Sharp’s group, the focus of investigation is on the dorsal raphe serotonergic system and its role in mood disorders. Within this group I carried out electrophysiological studies to investigate interactions between neuronal subtypes within the dorsal raphe.

My current position is as a Senior Principal Scientist within the Genitourinary Therapeutic Area at Pfizer Global Research and Development. In this role I am responsible for running an electrophysiology group that is primarily involved in exploring the pharmacology and circuitry involved in female sexual function and in bladder sensation. In addition, we develop physiological animal models to assess efficacy and pharmacology of novel compounds for treatment of female sexual dysfunction and overactive bladder. In this position I am also responsible for communicating our science externally, making decisions on utility of various animal models, and developing the scientific strategy for our product concepts.

The move from academia to industry was more serendipitous than planned – the position opened as my Oxford post-doc ended and I knew several people who had taken up positions at the Pfizer UK site. Upon interviewing, I realized that the quality of the science in industry, the speed with which things get done, and the focus on treatment of patients were all things that I desired in a permanent position. There are downsides to working in industry – the pressure is high to achieve something useful, your role/group/title/focus of research can change quickly and often; your allocated resources are tied to the share price/productivity of your department/ success in clinical trials or FDA approval. Scientists are not able to focus on one important question – you must be able to learn a lot very quickly and do a lot simultaneously: in four years at Pfizer my team has investigated 32 compounds targeting 18 different neurotransmitter receptors and have developed physiological animal models for premature ejaculation, female sexual arousal, and bladder sensation, in addition to doing studies aimed at investigating the role of hypothalamic nuclei on apomorphine induced sexual arousal. A further downside is that only about 1/4 of this work will be publishable due to confidentiality constraints. I would recommend to anyone curious about industry to take up a post-doctoral position with a pharmaceutical company. These tend not to come with benefits or salary of a permanent position – but would certainly provide an overall view of what the atmosphere is like and if you are suited to industrial science. I would also highly recommend expanding the job search to include Europe – where 25-30 days holiday per year are not only standard but you are STRONGLY encouraged to use them. Time off combined with the ability to get anywhere in Europe within a few hours is a great combination.

My supervisors have had a huge influence on who I am today. David Rye taught me more about being a scientist than any other single person I’ve encountered. He taught me how to focus my questions, how to interpret results accurately, and how to strive towards doing the best science possible. To this day I amuse my team with Dave-isms and stories of my grad school days in Dave’s lab. Jorge Juncos is packed full of ideas and enthusiasm and kept me motivated when things were tough. Jorge is always willing to introduce students to more senior scientists as he truly cares about their welfare. From Jorge I learned how to nurture my team and keep them happy. I left Emory with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience but more importantly, I left with the actual skills to be a scientist – and the enthusiasm that can only be generated in a place where people love what they are doing and do it exceptionally well!

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