Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector
Basic Research in a Therapeutic Context
Susan Croll, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.
As a young girl, I dreamed of conducting basic scientific research. I also fervently wanted to teach, because I had spent many hours as a child watching my college professor father, Charles Croll, lecture to his psychology students. During my undergraduate years as a psychology major at SUNY Geneseo, my love for the basic science of behavior grew.
How, then, did I end up doing pre-clinical research for a biotechnology company?
While working on my doctorate in psychology (specifically, neuropsychology) at CUNY-Queens College under the mentorship of Elizabeth Bostock, I lost a young friend to post-ischemic brain damage. Watching him stagnate in a persistent vegetative state for many years before his death, I became very interested in how science could save the brains of tragically afflicted people like my friend. I began to seek more clinical experiences. During graduate school, I worked as a research consultant for the Robert Wood Johnson Rehabilitation Center, became an emergency medical technician, and took a clinically-oriented neuropathology course at Elmhurst Hospital/Mt. Sinai Medical School. During these experiences, I came into contact with a large number of patients in either the acute or chronic stages of brain injury or disease. I became determined to understand and find treatments for these tragic illnesses.
In spite of my new drive to attack brain injury and disease, I remained determined to have opportunities to conduct basic research, and I felt that biotechnology would offer me a greater opportunity to do basic research within a therapeutic context than some of the larger pharmaceutical companies. So I started my postdoctoral fellowship at a new biotechnology company, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, in 1992 under the direction of Stan Wiegand. I knew instantly that I had made the right choice.
Because Regeneron is known for discovering new proteins, we were often put in the position of determining, from square one, what a new protein might do in the brain. Once we knew where it was and what it seemed to do, we would go on to hypothesize, and then study, whether the protein might be therapeutic or contributory in various pathophysiological states. It has been very gratifying to watch proteins discovered at Regeneron enter development for human therapies, and there is a very real possibility that my experiments will one day significantly improve the quality of many people's lives. This excitement has kept me at Regeneron past my postdoctoral years.
My training as a psychological scientist has proven valuable during my career at Regeneron. Many of my projects have involved evaluating animal behavior. I have studied the roles of our proteins in learning, memory, and dementia as well as in seizure-related behaviors. Most recently, I have used behavior as a tool to measure functional outcome after ischemic brain damage. Frequently, I have evaluated the behavior of mutant mice generated in-house or by collaborators. On several occasions, I have discovered behavioral abnormalities in mice which appeared overtly normal.
In addition to the value of my training in behavioral evaluation, I feel I have a better understanding of design and analysis than some of my non-psychology colleagues. I am frequently sought out for advice about how to analyze data sets. On average, I believe that psychology graduate programs place more emphasis on statistics and experimental design than most other graduate programs attended by medical researchers.
Industry is not for everyone. On the plus side, the resources in industry are better than in academia, there are no grant proposals to write, and for those who don't like to teach, there's no obligatory teaching. In addition, there is often a tremendous camaraderie among scientists in the same company because they are all researching the same proteins or problems as a team. However, in industry there is less freedom in the selection of research projects. Further, there are many reports, justifications, and presentations to prepare in lieu of grant proposals.
But in many other ways, biotechnology and academia are similar. We publish our work, read the literature, attend meetings and seminars, and teach if we wish. My intense desire to teach has been partially fulfilled by taking student interns into my laboratory (most companies run intern programs) and by lecturing at local universities. Most pharmaceutical companies either keep an internal journal library or contract for memberships with local university libraries. At Regeneron, we do both. We invite outside scientists to speak at our seminar series and internally, we hold presentations in a "journal club" type of format.
I suggest that psychology students who are considering establishing careers in the private sector take advantage of the intern programs run by many companies. These internships generally provide a salary, and often are available during the summer. Recent psychology doctoral graduates might consider doing a postdoctoral fellowship in industry. After completing the fellowship, if industry doesn't feel right, it is probably best to complete a second postdoctoral fellowship in academia to re-establish a presence in that milieu. If basic science and freedom are extremely important to a researcher, biotechnology might be more comfortable than the larger, well-established pharmaceutical companies. For those who prefer stability, great resources, and large salaries, the opposite is true.
Being in industry has been a rewarding experience for me. Whether or not I choose to remain in the private sector for the rest of my career, it is an experience that I will always treasure. I believe that a higher proportion of industry biopsychologists than academic biopsychologists have the opportunity to see a reagent that they researched in the laboratory realize its full potential as a treatment to improve the human condition. It is this experience that has made the private sector exciting for me.