Steve Perrin Ph.D, is the CEO of the ALS Therapy Development Institute, a non-profit drug discovery company that combines pharma savvy, scientific inquiry and patient advocacy. Founded by Jamie Heywood (of Patients Like Me) after this brother was diagnosed with ALS, the company develops and screens potential ALS drugs. The process operates at an industrial scale: “Treatments of all kinds are considered and tested rigorously and rapidly.” ALS TDI is hosting a “Leadership Summit” in November
Here, Perrin offers some advice to new student scientists now settling into labs across Boston.
Science is truly an amazing discipline. Its impact on the lives of the world’s populations is evident, whether we are talking about the time of Socrates, Galileo, Newton, Einstein or a host of others.
As I see a new cohort of young and aspiring scientists come to the Boston area this fall, I reflect on my own path to recognizing my passion for science and how I found the best ways for me to exploit that passion for the betterment of humanity.
I remember becoming interested in science during advanced placement biology and chemistry classes in high school. The ‘80s were a time of rapid innovation in molecular biology, when scientists were using the first positional cloning strategies to identify the causes of human disease. The techniques were crude by today’s standards. It took an amazing amount of resources, both financial and personal, to find a gene and determine its sequence. But I was inspired by the potential that these emerging tools might have on the course of human disease and opportunities to combat it. I forged ahead and became determined to one day go to medical school.
My advice is to let the path develop on its own; follow your scientific interests and excitement to chart your own path. The passion you bring to the problems you want to solve will drive success in your career.
After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from Boston College, I was unsure if my scientific interests would lead me towards an MD or a PhD. I decided to put my academic training on hold, and took a position as a research technician in the hematology/oncology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. I was lucky enough to work in the lab of the Chief Resident of the Oncology Clinic at the time, where I was exposed to the state-of-the-art positional cloning techniques trying to identify the target genes involved in various hematologic oncology diseases. Equally as important, I was also able to interact with patients in the clinic whose precious DNA samples were required for the gene hunt. It was an exciting time in both respects. New techniques, such as the polymerase chain reaction, had just been invented, making gene amplification and cloning much faster. New sequencing technologies were rapidly being developed as the first discussion of sequencing the human genome took place among scientific groups all around the world. At the time, there was much skepticism that the human genome could ever be sequenced! It was then that I knew that the road forward for me was science. So I headed off to earn a PhD in biochemistry from Boston University Medical Center.
Both my graduate work and post-doctoral work focused on development biology and the way that the changes in gene expression determined cell fate and tissue development. At the time, measuring the changes in gene expression for even a handful of genes was laborious and challenging. However, researchers were developing new cutting edge technologies called microarrays that could survey the entire known genome between two samples, such as one collected from a tumor versus normal tissue! The technologies were very expensive, and one could only imagine the potential implications and impact that sequencing and microarrays may have on human disease and the development of effective treatments. It became clear to me that I wanted to apply my scientific skills more directly to patient needs than what I had been doing during my graduate and post-doctoral work. So I decided to jump to the pharmaceutical industry where I could have access to these amazing new technologies.
I have since worked in two pharmaceutical companies (Hoescht Marion Russel and Aventis), a large biotech (Biogen Idec) and a nonprofit research institute (ALS Therapy Development Institute). All of them have been amazing experiences, and a career path I could never have predicted twenty years ago. My advice is to let your path develop on its own; follow your scientific interests and excitement to chart your own path. The passion you bring to the problems you want to solve will drive success in your career. Use your time in academia to explore diverse disciplines. Take courses in biochemistry as well as biology and chemistry. Take physics, computational biology and lots of statistics courses. All of these disciplines will help in your future scientific endeavors. But also take courses outside science that can help you prepare for running a lab, designing and organizing projects, working with your peers and across teams with different backgrounds and skill sets. Take courses on public speaking so you can articulate your ideas, and finance classes to learn how to master project planning and balance budgets.
The scientific times are as amazing today as they have been at any time in history. The ability to generate enormous amounts of data is increasing at an unprecedented rate. We are discovering more about the human condition on an annual basis today than what would have taken decades in the past to achieve. My advice is to take the time to discover your passion and pursue it to the best of your ability. Every scientific discipline and endeavor benefits mankind in some fashion; be it economic, social or medical.