We interviewed Rowan Chapman of Incyte Pharmaceuticals to find out her field and her career:
Next Wave: What is proteomics? Is it just protein chemistry with a fancy name, or is it more than that?
Rowan: Proteomics is taking the protein complement of the cell, the whole proteome of a cell, and linking it to the genome of a cell. Protein chemistry is much more defined. You can take a protein and do chemistry on it, but the whole thing about proteomics is you can get at a whole set of proteins and link them back to DNA.
Q: Is proteomics a real field that exists now?
A: It's real. It's here. People are using it. Of course, people are still working out the details because that's science. Proteomics or two-dimensional gel technology has been around for 20 years or so. But the main problem has been linking proteins to the patterns in DNA, so now with the advent of really sensitive mass spec techniques it's routine, high-throughput, even to link a protein to a genome.
Q: Is proteomics a growth area?
A: It absolutely is a growth area. In terms of how it fits in, I think that the combination of proteomics with the transcript imaging technology and some concept of bioinformatics is really where it's at. I don't think there's going to be proteomics by itself. Or transcript work by itself. Put the two together and when people go and look for jobs, they'll be getting jobs that probably take into account both parts of the equation.
Q: To work in the area of proteomics and genomics, what kinds of skills do you need?
A: If you're doing the technology development, then you need an understanding of protein. But for an end user it's very much the same skills as using the transcript imaging. You need to have an understanding of biology, an understanding of informatics. Although you don't have to be able to program, you have to be able to understand data management. It's very much the biology of today. I think no biologist is going to be immune to any of these things.
Q: In an industry environment, is there room for people with a bachelor's or master's degree at a technician level?
A: Oh absolutely. I'm thinking we have a proteome group here, and I think 80% of the people in that group are not Ph.D.s. They have master's degrees and they're working on technical improvements on proteomics.
Q: So, you would need a Ph.D. if you wanted to lead a group?
A: I think that's pretty common. I mean it's not essential, if anything you don't NEED a Ph.D., but the average is that the people with a Ph.D. tend to be the people leading the groups.
Q: Rowan, what is your background?
A: I did an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, at the University of Cambridge, England. Then I did a Ph.D. in cell biology at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England. That was my first experience with proteomics. Then I did a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, working on signal transduction (a kind of cell biology and biochemistry mixed together). Then I came to work for Incyte.
Q: What is it like to move from an academic postdoc into an industry environment? Is it different?
A: Yes, it's very different. I think it can really depend on what industry you move into. My guess, because I have no experience, is that the biotech industry is going to be very different than the pharmaceutical industry. My experience of it is that it's been more challenging in academia you have a certain view of where you're going to be going and what you're going to be doing. In industry you're there and you have to respond to the market needs, and also fairly different things are going on in the industry and you have to understand it all--well, you don't have to but if you want to.
Q: Understand it all in terms of understanding the different parts of a company that are required to get a product to market?
A: Yes, so you've been very comfortable with the science, but the difference is suddenly you're looking at process and being very concerned about the production process. In research, I'm still concerned about the production process because the research makes production so you have to have the understanding of production. It's also important to have the understanding of customers and marketing--not that scientists are going to do that, but you have to understand why you have to produce certain pieces of data. It's called product definition. So it's really a much bigger view. It puts your experiments in a different context.
In academia you have your experiments in the context of biology, which is huge. In industry, you have your experiments in the context of biology as well as in the context of making this into a product and delivering it to a market. A lot of people come from academia, and they say, "Oh, I don't need to know about how much this product costs, I don't need to know about how we're going to sell it." But actually you do, because you're doing research for industry. The bottom line is we're trying to sell something.
Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for any postdocs who might be reading this and who would like to follow the path you took?
A: The thing that I think people are looking for in industry is the willingness to understand the market. It's a very basic thing, but you can't come in saying, "Oh I'm an academic, and the most important thing in the world is this teeny-weeny little bit." In industry that's not the most important thing, and that's probably going to make you less attractive. You can be as smart as you like, but if you can't interact with marketing people and sales people and production people, then you're not going to do very well in industry.
Also, the other thing which I think a lot of academics lose sight of is that everybody's got good ideas regardless of whether they have a Ph.D. or not. In academia you don't see that because everybody's working for a Ph.D. and everybody's doing a postdoc--even the undergraduates who work in the lab, everybody thinks, "Oh, well, you're going to go and do a Ph.D." When you're in industry, people are there, it's their life, it's their job, and you can't go in feeling superior because you have a Ph.D. A lot of people come in with that attitude, and that's a really bad attitude to have.