Alumni Profile: Pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical industry

Dr. Ahil Ganesh graduated in 2019 from Chemical Engineering/Biomedical Engineering, where he completed his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Dr. Molly Shoichet’s lab. Dr. Ganesh is now a senior research scientist at Spark Therapeutics, working on gene therapies. Writer Julien Couture-Senécal spoke to Dr. Ganesh recently about his PhD experience.

Academia or industry? A question many PhD students are often asked or ask themselves.  While successful academics are idolized, career options in the biomedical industry remain nebulous. I met with Dr. Ahil Ganesh to discuss his young career in the pharmaceutical industry and to deconstruct this apparent dichotomy.

I clearly remember the first time I met Ahil in one of the over-sized rooms of the old Haultain building. I was a first-year undergraduate student, and he was a Chemistry teaching assistant. Calm and well-spoken, Ahil was a great teacher. Little did I know, a career in academia had never truly been on his mind.

Four years later, Ahil is starting a new role at Spark Therapeutics. Prior to that, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Novartis, working on novel delivery technologies. Here are a few snippets of our conversation:

How did you decide to do a postdoc at Novartis?

I had always wanted to go into industry, to be quite honest. I really enjoyed the science aspect of academia, but I didn’t think I would enjoy the grant writing and the administrative side of being a professor. In industry, if you find the right opportunities, you can still do very innovative science, albeit with a different type of administrative burden.

Near the end of my PhD, I did an internship at Molly’s start-up company. I joined after most of the technology development had already been done. While I learned a lot about downstream considerations, that experience also helped me realize that I wanted to be working at earlier stages of pharmaceutical product development. I wanted to be doing more exploratory research and developing novel delivery strategies for specific applications.

I talked to numerous alumni and went through LinkedIn profiles of connections in my network to learn about what career trajectory could potentially lead me to where I wanted to be. I learned that postdoctoral experience was still valued (perhaps in some cases even preferred) by hiring managers for industry positions.

What’s the difference between an academic postdoc and an industry postdoc?

At the core of it, an industrial postdoc is quite similar to an academic one, as in you’re doing experiments to push the boundaries of current scientific knowledge and capabilities. Many companies have discovery postdoc streams that are dedicated to basic and translational research, very similar to an academic institution, where they do expect those postdoctoral researchers to publish. However, depending on the group, you might be working on pipeline projects, like I was, which have timelines for publishing that are much longer than the tenure of a typical postdoc position.

In my experience, an industrial postdoc was a great way for me to get my foot in the door; I learned first-hand about what it takes to discover and develop a pharmaceutical product, how to be an effective member of multidisciplinary teams, and how to best deliver on projects with tight timelines. An academic postdoc, and even graduate school, will help you develop similar skills, but with an industrial postdoc, you learn these skills in the context of being a high-performing member of a corporate research organization.

What graduate school skillsets are useful for your work?

The tangible technical skills are of course important. Understanding the basics of different formulation strategies, how to characterize them, and evaluate them appropriately are skills I use everyday. More importantly though are the skills I gained around how to ask questions and design experiments to answer those questions effectively. There’s an opportunity to really improve the lives of patients, so you want to be delivering on projects as quickly as possible. It’s about asking the key questions that are going to give you that answer as fast as possible, while still maintaining a high quality of science. That can take the form of “killer” experiments that try to identify pitfalls in a project quickly, or more optimistically, “proof of concept” experiments to really show if the idea going to work. There are always numerous distinct projects in the works at once; with a finite amount of time available within a single working week, you really have to be efficient with that time, and that means being efficient with how you design experiments and do bench work.

Do you have a good memory from graduate school that you’d like to share?

My graduate school experience was really positive. I have some fond memories with people and friends that I met during that experience. The coffee breaks during graduate school were always filled with fun conversations, both scientific and non-scientific. This goes back to your peers being a positive resource during graduate school. Casual chats over coffee are a great time to troubleshoot experiments. More generally, social activities outside of the lab are opportunities to develop good relationships with your peers, and that then translates into more collaborative science inside the lab.