American Society for Investigative Pathology, February 2014, Vol 6, No. 1

Follow-up after the Career Development Workshop & Breakfast: Non-Traditional Career Opportunities at the ASIP 2013 Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology

James Fikes' experience as a toxicological pathologist at AstraZeneca affords unique insight into the field of biopharmaceutical drug discovery and development, and will inspire trainees interested in a non-traditional career opportunity in pathology.

For those unable to attend your presentation at the ASIP Annual Meeting, could you tell us about your career path?
For training I completed a DVM followed by an MS in Toxicology, a PhD in Pathology and a Residency in Comparative Pathology. Following my Residency and completing my veterinary pathology board certification, my initial job was working for a contract pathology company that provided pathology services for the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research. It was a great opportunity to gain experience in working collaboratively with a diverse set of scientists in a cross-functional setting as well as learn a lot about rodent pathology. From there I took an opportunity to join a major pharmaceutical company as a pathologist focused on nonclinical toxicology studies. In this role I provided the pathology assessment of toxicology studies for compounds intended for registration as therapeutic pharmaceuticals. This gave me valuable pharmaceutical based toxicologic pathology experience in a Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) setting. Along came the1990s and the biotechnology boom and I headed to an emerging biopharmaceutical company and established a safety assessment group. It was tremendous working closely with molecular and cellular biologists in the discovery of new therapeutics. The setting required active engagement in multiple areas of pharmaceutical research and development and provided me experience in working on projects from the early discovery efforts through supporting compounds in proof-of-principle Phase II clinical trials. This experience broadly diversified my skills and really stretched my boundaries. From there I went back to a large global pharmaceutical company where I currently lead a nonclinical pathology group within safety assessment. My current position has been a great opportunity to enhance my knowledge of the development of small-molecule drugs and leveraging pathology early in the discovery process.

How did you become interested in a career in drug development?
During my MS program I was already involved in toxicology. A major portion of my research involved pathology. From that I became interested in toxicologic pathology which is basically the practice of applying pathology (study of disease) to toxicology (the study of the effects of chemicals and other agents on humans, animals, and the environment). While doing my MS at University of Illinois and my PhD at Michigan State University, I attended and presented at regional and national meeting in toxicology and toxicologic pathology. These meetings gave me more insight to toxicology and pathology as careers within the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and my interest grew from there..

What key factors have contributed to your success?
Part of my success is clearly linked to having numerous contacts within the profession. Many of these contacts date back to when I was in graduate school and were between myself and other students or individuals I met at meetings and interviews that were already in the career field. I have also had the tremendous fortune of working for and with some of the best and brightest individuals I have ever known. Their mentoring, collaboration, and sharing of ideas and feedback has certainly broadened and enhanced my experience and capabilities.

Can you describe what you do in a typical day?
I manage a small pathology group, so I am a working manager. Part of each day is devoted to the administrative tasks of managing. My pathology activities typically vary from reviewing slides from investigative studies and traditional toxicology studies, researching the literature regarding current findings and new investigations, writing reports, and meetings with other scientists and project teams to discuss current findings and future studies.

What kinds of opportunities are available to pathologists interested in transitioning from academia to the pharmaceutical industry?
Pathologists can be active in drug discovery activities such as therapeutic target validation and evaluation, identification and verification of biomarkers of safety and efficacy, and translational sciences. Pathologists are also traditionally involved in safety assessment as toxicologic pathologists where they may be involved in identifying target organs of toxicity, investigation of target organ toxicities, and working as a member of a multidisciplinary team for integrated risk assessment.

Can you describe some of the risks and benefits of working in a pharmaceutical company versus the traditional academic career path?
Clearly the volatility of the pharmaceutical industry can result in contractions and expansion of an individual company’s work force with resultant hiring and layoffs. An individual needs to be able to cope with varying levels of stress due to uncertainty regarding the unpredictable nature of the biopharmaceutical industry and sometimes a cyclic unclear future of an individual company.

What characteristics would a scientist need to be successful in this field?
The characteristics that I associate most with a successful individual are collaborative spirit, entrepreneurial, inquisitive, and flexible. I think having a good sense of what my strengths and weakness are has helped me personally.

What advice would you give to current graduate students interested in a career in industry?
Establish a proven track record of written and verbal communication by presenting at meetings and publishing your research. This will also lead to your exposure to individuals in various career fields and contacts that can help you get started and be successful long into the future.

What job search platforms/techniques would you recommend for launching a career in industry?
I do not have experience with search platforms. I am aware of Monster (www.monster.com) , ideed (www.ideed.com), HealthcareJobsite (www.healthcarejobsite.com), and ASIP's Pathology Jobs Today (www.pathologyjobstoday.org) and I anticipate these could be helpful to rapidly look for jobs in certain fields in specific geographic areas. I would recommend using LinkedIn for networking and maintaining contacts. I strongly recommend attendance of relevant local and national professional meeting such as the Society of Toxicology, American Society for Investigative Pathology, Society of Toxicologic Pathology, etc. to network and building contacts. These can lead information on jobs that are not well circulated or that you are unaware of.