Department of Immunology alumna (and frequent IMMpress contributor) Dr. Angela Zhang will be the first to tell you that the transition from academia to industry is not easy. For this issue of IMMpress, we caught up with Angela (this time as the interviewee rather than the interviewer) to talk about her own experiences in post-graduate professional life.


A WOMAN OF LETTERS

Photo credit: Jason Fraser
Photo credit: Jason Fraser

Angela Zhang graduated in 2015 as Dr. Shannon Dunn’s first PhD student, with her thesis examining the role of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPARα) in the regulation of sex differences in T helper 1 immunity. During her time at U of T, Angela made sure the learning experience took place both inside and outside of the lab. Always an active member of the community, Angela tackled her degree while acting as the lab manager, spearheading the career development series for the Immunology Graduate Student Association (IGSA), contributing to IMMpress Magazine (for which she is still an active writer and editor), and writing scientific articles as a form of inbound marketing at a start-up software company. “We have to focus on our PhDs, but I think there is time outside of that to learn other important soft skills,” she advises. “Having better communication skills is integral—no matter where you go, you’re going to work with people so you need to know how to communicate and motivate them.”

TAKING A PAGE FROM INDUSTRY

Wanting to be closer to her family, Angela relocated back home to Vancouver after graduation and specifically sought out jobs away from the bench. There, she put her hard-earned soft skills to use and made the leap into industry with an industry postdoctoral fellowship at Qu Biologics Inc. Qu Biologics is a Vancouver-based, clinical-stage, privately-held biopharmaceutical company that is developing a platform technology called Site Specific Immunomodulators (SSIs). SSIs are designed to address the underlying immune dysfunction in the body to treat cancer and other immune-related diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease. Her postdoc with Qu Biologics allowed her to stretch her communication muscles in a science liaison type role where she designed and led preclinical studies, contributed to the scientific part of patent-writing (“the language used in patents is so different!”), applied for “non-dilutive” funding (i.e. financing that does not dilute the company’s shares), and supported product development in collaboration with the manufacturing team. Now, as Scientific Data Manager for the company, Angela’s responsibilities centre around the due-diligence process. “When we are considering a [potential] partnership with a large pharmaceutical company, we need to make sure that our scientific story is backed up by strong scientific data,” she explains. “My role is to ensure that on the preclinical side of things that records are kept well and that our scientific story is defensible.” Here, Angela unveils some business strategy where the company needs to assess how much data to reveal based on the amount of interest from potential pharma partners. She elaborates, “This process will lead to a number of potential outcomes for the company, and the company will have to assess the business direction that it wants to take based on that outcome.”

Angela quote web

READING BETWEEN THE LINES

Since joining Qu Biologics a year ago, Angela has gained a better understanding not only of the industry but also of the product that she is helping to develop. Qu’s SSI platform has resulted in Health Canada-approved clinical trials for Crohn’s Disease (which just completed phase II), ulcerative colitis, and recurrent lung cancer. While her thesis work focused on multiple sclerosis (MS), the transition over to other disease models was not difficult; ultimately, it is the same immune system responding in different contexts. The real challenge instead was the transition from academia to industry: “Industry is a lot more fast-paced and there are deadlines!” she explains. “The communication is a lot more corporate and the message needs to be very clear.” This is particularly important because of Qu’s open concept lab and office environment, where all 20 employees are in the same space despite being from different departments. This allows for a more interactive and collaborative office culture that has provided Angela with the opportunity to learn about other aspects of production, such as clinical development, manufacturing, and finances. Looking ahead to the future, Angela is very much still trying to figure out where her interests lie, and credits Qu with providing her with the opportunity to explore different avenues: “My biggest interest is in learning—I’m still early in my career and there is a lot that I still don’t know.”

ONE FOR THE BOOKS

Looking back on her days in Toronto, Angela wishes she had been less anxious about the next steps during her PhD. “A lot of people feel pressure in finding that job [after they graduate]—they are constantly asking: what am I going to do?” she recalls. “The reality is that I do not know anyone who has graduated with a PhD and is sitting at home not doing anything. Everyone finds a place, sometimes it just takes longer (i.e. more jobs) but most people will get to where they want to be.” She feels that a PhD provides enough stress and the added anxiety about the future only prevents you from enjoying your time in graduate school. With the expansion of Dr. Nana Lee’s Graduate Professional Development course, Angela feels that graduate students at U of T have more opportunities now to learn about what career paths are out there and how to leverage their skills to get that first job. While she concedes that more could be done to inform students of other available resources—such as workshops or internships—Angela ultimately concludes that “[t]he students themselves need to be more proactive: go out, take control, and learn as much as possible.”

 

 

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Angela Zhou

Angela is a PhD student at the University of Toronto currently studying immune responses to influenza infection. When not in the lab, she enjoys painting, wandering aimlessly, and spending quality time with good friends.

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