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Learn To Be a Generalist!

BY BEATRICE LANGTON-WEBSTER
UNITED STATES
15 DECEMBER 1995

After completing my Ph.D. and postdoctoral work in medical microbiology and immunology at the University of California, Davis, in 1985, I was offered my first job as a scientist in industry. I was hired to establish an immunology laboratory for Triton Biosciences. Triton offered many of the advantages of a small biotech company, including an emphasis on innovation and the ability to move new ideas quickly through the pipeline. Unlike many new biotech companies, however, Triton, as a subsidiary of Shell Oil Co., also offered financial security and stability. Triton was founded with a focus on cancer research with the goal of developing both diagnostic kits and therapeutic reagents.

Throughout the years at Triton, I was able to set up and contribute to many different scientific programs including monoclonal antibodies and cellular immunology research, development of clinical assay protocols and diagnostic kits, and growth factor and signaling research. These diverse interests and pursuits over the years ultimately allowed me to focus on establishing and developing new research programs for cancer therapeutics. One of the programs that stemmed from my lab's endeavors demonstrated preclinical potential as a therapeutic clinical candidate for breast cancer. Once again I found my career evolving to encompass project management responsibility. The stages of project management responsible for moving research from the bench into the clinic involve not only preclinical research activities but also preclinical development. As a result, the association with marketing, clinical, and business functions of the company increases, as does the interaction with regulatory agencies, including the FDA.

Approximately four and a half years ago, Triton was sold by Shell and was acquired by a German pharmaceutical company, Schering AG, and we became Berlex Laboratories Inc. At this time, and as a result of my previous scientific and project management background, I became the head of a strategic research unit responsible for new oncology therapeutic research programs. This new role focused more on research management as opposed to bench science and included business and administrative responsibility along with the scientific oversight of new and existing programs.

Throughout my career, on-the-job training, staying current with the literature, and supplementary management and business courses have been key factors to success. One recent training class emphasized to me the importance of learning about, and adapting to, new management styles. This class stressed conflict management as opposed to conflict resolution. As few as two or three years ago, managers were taught to resolve conflicts; now we are taught to understand what the conflicts might be and work to manage them so that both parties gain from the experience and the situations become win-win scenarios.

My advice to new scientists starting out today is to be flexible, to be team players, to be knowledgeable about the jobs you're going after, and to be opportunistic. Being opportunistic means being on the lookout for, or trying to create, new, exciting, and fun opportunities and challenges. As a woman, it may sometimes seem that one has to work harder and do everything with twice as much energy and enthusiasm. I have found, however, that respect will be forthcoming, whatever your gender or race, if you are hardworking, scientifically sound, and have "people skills." The opportunities, especially in industry, are definitely available, but the current environment dictates that a person be flexible and evolve to meet the needs of the company. While we are still hiring people for their specific expertise, the person who will survive in a long-term industrial career is the one who may become more of a generalist than a specialist. This is especially true for scientists who go into management, whether this is research management or administrative and business management. The management outlook required is often broad and global, and the strategic focus is usually long-term. This necessitates that the person no longer specialize in any one topic or area. A very productive and satisfying career as either a scientist or a science manager can be found in industry if one always looks for new angles to stay stimulated and challenged.

A good friend of mine once gave me a small memento for the office with a quotation on it by Ben Sweetland: "Success is a journey, not a destination." For me, creating and taking that journey has been, and continues to be, very rewarding and enjoyable.