2019 Career Panel:  Scientists in Law/Compliance/Regulatory Affairs

Overview of  2019 Career Panel:  Scientists in Law/Compliance/Regulatory Affairs

by Senegal Carty, GMS PhD Trainee

In 2019, Barbara Schreiber (GMS Assistant Dean of Alumni Affairs) hosted 5 career panels filled with impressive scientists, including many of our amazing alumni. We want to extend a huge thank you to all of our panelists and to Senegal Carty, a Program in Biomedical Sciences (PiBS) student who summarized the events. Be sure to mark the 2020 panels on your calendar!

Date: February 13, 2019
Dr. Katherine Kopeikina; Technical Specialist at DT Ward PC
Dr. Matthew Pavao; Partner at Cooley LLP
Dr. Tracey Tucker Zhou; Senior Medical Writer at Bluebird Bio

As the idea that graduate students should all be aiming for positions in academia loses its grip on the scientific community, more and more PhD students are aspiring to work in law, compliance and regulatory affairs. One of the ways in which Boston University’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BU’s BEST) program has helped to propagate awareness of these options is the recent panel discussion on careers in these fields led by Dr. Barbara Schreiber, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and co-PI (along with Dr. Linda Hyman, Associate Provost of Graduate Medical Sciences) of BU’s BEST. At this event, Dr. Matthew Pavao, partner at the law firm Cooley LLP, Dr. Katherine Kopeikina, technical specialist at the intellectual property law firm DT Ward PC and Dr. Tracey Tucker Zhou, senior medical writer at bluebird bio, all of whom are PhD alumni of BU, shared their paths from graduate studies to their current positions. The panelists also talked about the challenges and joys of working in their respective fields and gave insider tips on how to leverage one’s time in graduate school to become a competitive job applicant.

These fields are closely intertwined with success in science, although not all PhD students and degree holders are aware of them. If you’ve ever imagined making a great discovery or coming up with an extraordinary invention, your fantasy probably included the thrill of the initial finding and the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor appear in prestigious journals or even the news. But what about the steps in between – protecting your ideas and ensuring that credit is given where it’s due? Or communicating your work to regulatory agencies whose green light you’d need to put your finding on the market? For these steps in the process, you would need open-minded professionals equipped with the right technical knowledge to become deeply familiar with your discovery or invention, then craft the documents that would be your tickets past each checkpoint on the way to success. As each of the panelists showed, earning a PhD is excellent preparation for becoming one of these skilled professionals.

Dr. Kopeikina described how, after earning her PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and working as a postdoc at Northwestern University, she decided to move away from academia. With the help of an acquaintance, she entered the world of patent law and found that her interest in a wide range of topics, her time management skills and enjoyment of reading and writing meant that a position as a technical specialist was an excellent fit.  Dr. Kopeikina also stressed the importance of having good interpersonal skills in her job, which often requires dealing patiently with demanding clients.

In many respects, the qualities of a good technical specialist can also be applied to Dr. Pavao’s job, in which he focuses on intellectual property law, and Dr. Tucker Zhou’s position as senior medical writer. Both careers require excellent writing skills and a sense of curiosity about science in general, as well as the ability to meet tight deadlines and satisfy exacting clients. “If you’re a muscle fiber, and you’re a slow-twitch muscle fiber, you have no chance of success,” is how Dr. Pavao described the pace of his work. As partner at Cooley LLP, Dr. Pavao has learned to balance family life with frequent travel and an endless stream of emails and has no regrets about leaving academia. After discovering the possibility of going into law, Dr. Pavao was put in contact with an attorney whose firm was recruiting life science degree holders and making it possible for them to attend law school at night. Joining this firm as a technical specialist put Dr. Pavao on track to work his way up to the level of partner at his current firm. He advised PhD students and degree holders hoping to enter the same kind of career to gain at least a working knowledge of principles of business and current affairs in the business world. He also encouraged networking through informational interviews whenever possible and taking the patent bar exam before applying to show drive to succeed in the field.

Dr. Tucker Zhou compared some aspects of her work to ‘cat-herding’ –  she gleans expertise from different specialists and manages her team to create documents such as reports on clinical trials for submission to regulatory agencies. When asked what motivated her transition from a postdoc at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to medical writing, she spoke about her desire to remain in science while moving away from the bench. She told attendees that a strong background in molecular biology is what’s important in medical writing, not necessarily the specific field, although postdoc experience can be useful if it shows an ability to learn about different fields. Since collaboration is so important in her job, she explained, industry experience can be a plus for aspiring medical writers.

It was clear that for the avidly listening attendees, Drs. Tucker Zhou, Kopeikina and Pavao were wellsprings of information on how to move towards careers in their respective fields. The questions from the audience came in a steady stream and each panelist gave a glimpse into a fascinating career that many graduate students have had little if any exposure to.  This and other events organized by BU’s BEST, however, are helping us take strides toward widespread awareness of the versatility of a PhD.