SIAM News Blog

LS24 Panel Overviews Industry and Government Career Prospects in the Life Sciences

By Lina Sorg

The evolving nature of research and development in industry and government presents many exciting opportunities for applied and computational mathematicians who work in the life sciences. This broad subject area addresses a multitude of problems at various spatial, temporal, and organizational scales, with applications that range from biology, medicine, and epidemiology to climate change and even social justice. During the 2024 SIAM Conference on the Life Sciences (LS24)—which took place this June in Portland, Ore.—a panel of five researchers from industry and national laboratories reflected on their personal career trajectories, commented on the necessary background knowledge and skillsets for life science projects, and offered advice to junior scientists who are seeking employment. The session was moderated by Nessy Tania of Pfizer and included panelists Sara Del Valle of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Elamin Elbasha of Merck & Co., Khamir Mehta of Amgen, Paul Patrone of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Monica Susilo of Genentech.

Although all five panelists currently enjoy successful careers in the life sciences, this particular field was not necessarily part of their original plans. As an undergraduate student, Patrone studied philosophy at St. John’s College, a small liberal arts institution in Annapolis, Md. After reading many philosophical publications about math and science, he realized that he wanted to contribute directly to the discipline. While pursuing his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, Patrone began working at NIST; apart from a brief stint at Boeing after graduation, he has remained there ever since. “We have a very high-level view not only on science itself, but on mathematics,” he said of his role as a staff scientist within NIST’s Applied and Computational Mathematics Division. “We have some of the best experimentalists in the world.”

Elbasha’s professional journey also began in a completely different area of study. After obtaining undergraduate and M.A. degrees in economics in Sudan and Egypt respectively, he received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota and eventually earned a Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics. Although Elbasha initially intended to become a professor, difficulties in securing an academic role led him to accept a position as an economist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: his first foray into public health.

During a panel discussion at the 2024 SIAM Conference on the Life Sciences, which took place in June in Portland, Ore., researchers from industry and government settings commented on their respective experiences with mathematical careers in the life sciences and fielded questions from the audience. From left to right: moderator Nessy Tania of Pfizer and panelists Elamin Elbasha of Merck & Co., Monica Susilo of Genentech, Paul Patrone of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Khamir Mehta of Amgen, and Sara Del Valle of Los Alamos National Laboratory. SIAM photo.
Now with more than 25 years of experience in the pharmaceutical sector, Elbasha is the executive director of Health Economic Decision Sciences at Merck, where he leads a group of quantitative scientists and applied mathematicians who create mathematical models of infectious diseases and assess the value of vaccines. “I know I can make a difference,” he said. “It’s rewarding to know that you’re improving someone’s life and making it safer.”

Susilo shares the same sentiment about her position as a modeling and simulation scientist in the field of clinical pharmacology, which supports clinical trials and identifies doses/regimens that are both safe and efficacious. At Genentech, she routinely collaborates with clinicians and safety scientists on all aspects of drug development. “I love that I’m applying what I know from simulations and working with everyone on one goal: to get the best dose for the patient,” Susilo said.

Susilo’s introduction to clinical pharmacology marked a significant shift from her previous studies. Prior to a postdoctoral appointment at Pfizer, she was completely unfamiliar with mathematical pharmacology — having completed her Ph.D. research on the mechanics of soft tissue. Luckily, she found that much of her mechanical engineering education was transmissible to a pharmacological career.

Mehta, who holds a degree in chemical engineering, concurred with Susilo about the transferability of the engineering toolkit. When he was a junior researcher and began to think seriously about his future, he decided that he wanted to make a positive change to existing protocols. Now, Mehta utilizes systems models to explore drug development processes at Amgen. “Seeing whether we can make more sense of a system by using more complex mathematics has been driving my work thus far,” he said.

As a senior scientist at LANL, Del Valle leads an interdisciplinary team that investigates infectious diseases from the level of differential equations to large, agent-based simulations. These studies fall under the umbrella of national security, which is LANL’s area of focus. Del Valle initially accepted an internship at LANL as a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa and has been there ever since. “I never really thought that I would end up working at a national lab,” she said. “I assumed I would teach mathematics because I thought that’s what most mathematicians did.”

Del Valle spoke highly of the national laboratories’ interdisciplinary nature, which sets them apart from traditional academic institutions. She explained that mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, and biologists frequently collaborate to generate solutions for complicated problems. “Most of the teams we have are very interdisciplinary,” Del Valle said of LANL. “A diverse set of ideas, diverse people, and diverse approaches bring about breakthroughs, and that’s one of the things I like about Los Alamos.”

Because most jobs in industry or government involve at least some sort of multidisciplinary collaboration, the panelists all agreed that scientific and technical communication skills are paramount. “Around 80 percent of my work is writing proposals and papers and communicating with decision-makers and sponsors,” Del Valle said. “Being able to communicate complex terms and sophisticated models to a decision-maker or sponsor who does not have any scientific background is key.”

Elbasha agreed, noting that quantitative scientists often do not utilize the same frameworks as their colleagues from other disciplines — even though everyone is working towards a common objective. “You’ll be dealing with really smart people, but the language is different,” he said. “Learning how to work within a multidisciplinary team is one of the best skills you can have in an industrial environment.”

Patrone is thankful for his liberal arts education, which trained him to communicate effectively and ask pertinent questions to better understand a problem: fundamental skills that are remarkably valuable during the interview process. As such, he is especially impressed by candidates who ask insightful questions, demonstrate an interest in both the company and its projects, and can think on their feet. “I want to see if you have an idea about how to tackle a problem,” Patrone said. “The most interesting questions are the ones that people don’t have an answer to. And if someone shows the initiative, that’s a good person to hire.”

When an audience member inquired about the role of machine learning (ML) in the current landscape, Del Valle confirmed that LANL utilizes the technology in nearly all of its projects to better interpret the data at hand. While Patrone affirmed the power of ML, he cautioned attendees to remain cognizant of the associated uncertainty penalties. “Having machine learning in your toolbox is useful, but it’s just as important to try to understand it as a fundamental tool and recognize its limits as well as its strengths,” he said. In addition to ML, the panelists concurred that coursework in linear algebra, differential equations, computer programming, and statistics is equally useful for industrial careers.

Next, conversation turned to top strategies for finding and applying to internships and job openings. As a general rule, Susilo encouraged attendees to seek out internship listings on company websites and career portals early in the calendar year, especially between January and March. Patrone added that NIST advertises many positions—including the National Research Council postdoctoral program—on its website and collaborates with neighboring universities in the Washington, D.C., area to find suitable candidates. Merck, Amgen, Genentech, and LANL similarly publicize permanent openings, postdoctoral opportunities, and summer programs online. But while online sources—including platforms such as LinkedIn—are typically the best places to find individual job listings, it is beneficial to have an internal contact when it comes to actually submitting an application; otherwise, one’s file might get lost in the shuffle.

If job seekers do not personally know someone at a company of interest, Del Valle encouraged them to reach out to employees with whom they would like to work prior to submitting their materials. “We get 1,000 applications a day, maybe more,” she said of LANL. “It’s very overwhelming to look through all of those applications.” However, Del Valle acknowledged that she cannot respond to all of the inquiries that she receives due to their sheer volume; as such, she is more likely to reply if a message comes from a trusted contact or personal acquaintance on behalf of a prospective applicant.

SIAM plays a critical role in helping junior scientists make valuable connections that grow their networks, set them up for long-term success, and increase their desirability in the job market. Mehta urged audience members to attend SIAM Career Fairs, which allow students and early-career researchers to forge direct connections with actively recruiting companies. Elbasha noted that Merck has hired employees via postings on SIAM’s Career Center, as well as through similar pages of other mathematical and scientific societies. And of course, conferences like LS24 serve as prime occasions for early-career attendees to get acquainted with more senior colleagues.

When crafting application documents, individuals should personalize their cover letters as much as possible, avoid generics, and demonstrate their skills’ relevancy to the job requirements. Candidates should also show that they are excited about the position and understand its responsibilities and logistics. Finally, Patrone reminded listeners that enthusiasm goes a long way — especially because most positions offer some amount of on-the-job training. “Nothing beats hunger,” he said. “I’ve seen people come from behind because they really wanted something. People can have skills, but if you don’t have hunger then you won’t succeed.”

Lina Sorg is the managing editor of SIAM News
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