How would you describe your work as a translational scientist?
Scientists are often thought of as people in long white coats who spend their days standing over a beaker and Bunsen burner. But that doesn’t really describe what I do—I have more of an eye on the big picture: obtaining credible data and using it to develop medicines. At Horizon, I help build the foundation for many of the clinical trials and experiments that have led to life-changing treatments for people who suffer from rare, autoimmune and severe inflammatory diseases.
Science is a process, and I do a lot of the brainstorming and strategizing that influences how we conduct our research I review data and think about how these experiments work and can be improved upon in the future. And a lot of it is about collaboration—I work with colleagues in cross functional teams and external partners —to inform these important studies.
At Horizon we purposefully engage with partners from advocacy, academia and more to understand different disease states better. We value their input and in turn, collaborate with them to see how we can design future experiments.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
My current work allows me to learn new skills and explore a group of conditions—rare, autoimmune and severe inflammatory diseases—that I hadn’t encountered before. I’ve had a lot of experience in the world of infectious diseases, heart and liver disease and oncology, and it’s exciting to be able to add rare, autoimmune and severe inflammatory conditions to my repertoire. There are many interactive aspects about what I do, too. I find it very rewarding because these experiments can result in therapies for patients who often have no other treatment options.
How did you choose this career path?
As a child, I really enjoyed math and science classes and had an amazing role model—my older sister. I was able to tag along with her to science fairs, celebrate with her as she got her degrees in science and earn a post-doc fellowship and land a job in the pharmaceutical industry. It was very inspiring, and her success had a profound impact on my own journey. She blazed a trail for me and from her, I got a sense of what a scientist’s work is like.
I carried my interest in the STEM fields through high school and went to college to study chemistry—my interest was in lab work. But through that I realized that it wasn’t something I wanted to do forever, so I pivoted to biology. I went on to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University, followed by post-doctoral research at University of California, San Francisco.
What was it like to move from academic science to a corporate science?
When you switch from academic to corporate research, it’s important to get used to working in what I like to call the gray area. In academic labs, you have time and funding to explore and to fully know all there is to know. You can say things with certainty. But when you move to a corporate role, the pace and urgency is faster. We get the essential information about the safety and efficacy of the medicines we study, but in this setting, because as scientists we have a natural curiosity, we cannot always get all the answers that we might want. It’s important to be able to explain the things we know and the things we don’t know, and then use that information to decide whether to move forward or go back and do more research.
I’ve learned that people in the industry and academics are both good at science, but they do it differently. Academic partners are good at specific disease models and detailed looks at different systems. Horizon focuses on putting those models into action in the form of treatments that help patients better manage their disease and live fuller lives. They learn a lot from each other.
What advice do you have for future scientists who might be considering this career path?
I think a lot of my success comes from good mentorship. I consider myself to be an advocate for others who are considering an education and career in the STEM fields, particularly women. Last year, I was able to participate in a roundtable at an event, Girl Up STEM for Social Good Bootcamp, a program run by the United Nations Foundation. The event brought together young ladies in the Bay Area to our site in South San Francisco, and the goal was to encourage them to consider opportunities in STEM. It was very impactful for me to be able to share my experiences and help them recognize that my career path is one they too could explore.
My career advice would be to remember that it’s a marathon—not a sprint. Focus on each step of the journey rather than worrying about your ultimate destination. Science is challenging, but it provides vast opportunities. Part of it is just following your passion, figuring out what interests you, and trying to observe along the way the different things you can branch-off and do. Give yourself the ability to breathe and to really follow what interests you.
And don’t underestimate the value of mentor who can point you in the right direction. You need to see what success looks like in the end, and a mentor can provide that.
Connect with Dr. Jill Walker on LinkedIn at @JillBechtelWalker