Nida Siddiqui (NS), interviews Dr. Michelle Avery (MA), who tells us about her love for science communication, and how she used skills learnt during her PhD, to transition from bench research to being the ‘Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement’ at Summit Therapeutics.
NS: Could you tell us about yourself?
MA: I loved science since an early age, and even volunteered at a local science museum when I was old enough, but I could never have imagined where it would take me. I earned my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College. While I was there, I had a professor who told me that in order to have a career involving neuroscience, you had to have a PhD. And so, off I went to get my PhD, which I obtained from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I studied axon degeneration in Drosophila. I knew that I wanted to branch out from academia and so opted to not do a postdoc. After graduation, I joined a life sciences communication agency, called MacDougall Biomedical Communications. I’m now the Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics, a small biotech company developing drugs in Duchenne muscular dystrophy and C. difficile infection. I also compete nationally in ballroom dancing in my spare time.
NS: What were some of the exciting projects that you did during your PhD/Postdoc?
MA: I was a very fortunate grad student – the vast majority of my experiments went very well and resulted in several publications, two first authored papers and two others. My work centred on understanding axon degeneration. For the most part, I worked on a fusion protein that was originally discovered in mice about 20 years before I got to UMass, but its mechanism was still a mystery. We found that a protein, called Wlds, can stop axons from degenerating during injury and in some models of disease, a process that was previously thought to be passive one. I used Drosophila genetics to unravel how Wlds functions, and demonstrated that it acts through mitochondria. I also participated in a forward genetic screen, where we created thousands of mutant Drosophilas to find ones in which their axons didn’t degenerate; further proving that axon degeneration is an active process like apoptosis. We found several mutants that many others in the lab followed up on (and are continuing to follow up on).
NS: Did you have a dilemma after your PhD, to choose from a postdoc/industry position?
MA: My heart was not in research – I loved every aspect of it, except for doing it. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to myself or whichever research team I go to if I continued onto a postdoc. I was lucky enough to have a PI who was very supportive of me and my decision to go into industry, although some of my thesis committee members tried to pressure me into doing a postdoc.
NS: When did you decide it was time to move on and transition to industry?
MA: I decided a couple of years into my PhD that I wasn’t likely to continue on in academia. I’m a big believer that one should always love what they’re doing and make a change if they don’t. I did chat with several of my friends about whether to drop out of the PhD program or to finish my degree and most of them responded with “you’ve come this far, you’d probably regret it if you don’t finish.” I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but am happy to leave the bench behind.
NS: What are the skills that helped you crack your current position?
MA: Four main skills are crucial for my job:
- Learning – People often take for granted the main skill that we are taught in any PhD program. How to learn and then apply that learning. This ability has allowed me to learn the business of science, read and decipher scientific papers for the masses and be able to effectively research any challenge and come up with solutions.
- Problem-solving – They don’t call it research because you do it just once. Science has taught me how to expect the unexpected and find a way around it. Every company has unique challenges and figuring out the best way to address them is key to good communication.
- Communicating – In my career, it’s very important for me to be able to tell a compelling story to a wide variety of audiences – from young patients to other PhDs who have now turned into investors. The overall message stays the same, but the details change, based on the level of knowledge each group has. Having the opportunity to present to different groups during grad school has helped immensely in this regard. In addition, my PI was great at preparing us for presentations – any time we presented in a conference or other event, we practiced in front of the entire lab and received detailed feedback on every slide, from the words we used to describe to the content of the slide.
- Confidence in questioning authority – We all know that science would not advance if researchers weren’t bold enough to question the reigning dogma. We’re taught to prove the null hypothesis and question every aspect of ours and others’ data. This is a very useful skill when it comes to shaping a communications strategy, crafting the message that conveys your story and preparing your team well for a question and answer session with different audiences. It ultimately gives more credibility to the company, which is a company’s greatest asset in biotech.
NS: Could you describe your role as the Director of investor relations and patient engagement?
MA: In smaller biotech companies, investor relations and corporate communications are one and the same. The life of a biotech company depends on its ability to raise money and fund research. For that, you need a compelling story, honest and frequent communication and a good relationship with Wall Street. These three tasks fall under my purview.
A compelling story should start with a simple message that permeates through all communications of the company. Therefore, I’m responsible for all external written and oral communications – the vast majority of which I take the first draft on, whereas some others (mainly scientific presentations/posters) I simply review to make sure they support our story. The communications I draft include, website text, press releases, presentations, conference call scripts, Q&A documents and financial filings (as a public company, we have to file certain forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission).
On the honest and frequent communications front, I typically map out a year or two worth of upcoming events (e.g. conferences, corporate and scientific announcements), identify gaps in the frequency of communication and come up with clever ways to fill those gaps, such as targeting a scientific publication for that time far enough in advance.
In regards to maintaining a good relationship with Wall Street, there are three categories of Wall Street folks that I interact with: bankers: that help us to raise money; buysiders: the investors that buy our stock; and sellsiders: who write reports on our company recommending whether to buy, hold or sell our stock.
NS: Could you elaborate on investor relations strategy?
MA: An investor relations strategy includes interactions with the bankers, buysiders and sellsiders; a plan for continuing the relationships, and also building them. Thus, I spend a lot of time traveling with my Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Each bank typically holds conference during the year, where we present and get to meet one-on-one with buyside investors. Usually, we take a day or two on either side of these conferences to meet the sellsiders or other investors who weren’t at the conference. We also conduct what are called non-deal roadshows, meaning we’re not looking to raise money, but rather are out meeting with buyside investors at their offices. We try and conduct a non-deal roadshow every three months at different locations both in the US and Europe. For sellsiders, we frequently call and meet ones that write about us to make sure they’re as up to date as possible. We also seek out and educate sellsiders that write about other companies in our space. It’s important for them to know as much as they can about a disease space, so we make sure they have an accurate picture of our company which may increase our chances of getting mentioned in research they cover about other companies. In some cases, you can even persuade a sellsider to start writing reports about your company. Another incredibly important aspect of my job is to make sure that we all stay out of jail. All joking aside, there are certain obligations that a public company has in terms about what and when it discloses certain information. I tend to say I’m the nosiest person at the company because of this task – I need to understand what’s going on with every group within the company to know whether or not we need to make a disclosure and when we need to do so. It’s also great to have a head’s up when something like data might be coming, so I can plan the scenario and ensure we have all the right messages and materials ready when it’s time to get the disclosure out. There are many other aspects to investor relations, but these are the main components.
NS: Could you describe the concept of patient engagement?
MA: Patient engagement is relatively new in biotech companies. More and more, biotech companies are realizing that patients are very important for the development of their drugs. In order for a drug to get to the market, you need patient enrolment in clinical trials, and therefore, they need to be designed with patients in mind. So, this role is a two-way street – where we need to educate the patients and in return we need to be educated by them. On the educational front, I spend time traveling to patient organization meetings, to present our approach towards treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy and our clinical trials. These meetings are a great way for us to be educated about the patient population – the questions they ask and discussions they have could be very informative. We also set up periodic webinars, send around newsletters, use social media and keep the patient and family website up to date. Another way that patients educate us is through an advisory board, where we get their feedback on clinical trial protocols, what’s most important in their quality of life and what attributes they look for in a potential drug. It’s great to be at a company that cares about its patients and works to involve them in our drug development as best as possible. It’ll be even better if one day I can tell the patients that we have a new treatment option for them.
NS: What would be your advice to PhD students and postdocs looking to transition to the industry?
MA: I would advise students and postdocs to follow their hearts first and foremost – if you want to make a transition, you can do it and be successful no matter what pushback you may or may not receive from various advisors. Make sure that you openly communicate about your desire to transition – it could help open up doors to networking with others who may have made the transition. Look for other ways to network with those who have made a transition – your city may have a biotech organization that holds events, there may be alternative career talks at your institution or LinkedIn can be a good way to find people to connect with. Finally, look for ways to enhance your skillset for whatever career you may be interested in – if it’s communications, see if there’s a blog you can contribute to on a topic of your choice or sign up for presenting whenever you get a chance. Best of luck to you!
About Dr. Michelle Avery:
Michelle Avery, PhD, is Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics. Previously, she held various positions of increasing seniority at MacDougall Biomedical Communications with her last position being Senior Account Executive. She earned her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and BA in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College.
About Nida Siddiqui:
Paurvi Shinde did her PhD, in Immunology from University of Connecticut Health and currently works as a Post Doc, at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. She’s loves editing and proofreading scientific articles, to convey the message behind it, in a clear and concise form. Follow her on Linkedin.
Sayantan Chakraborty is an IRTA postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore. A geneticist by training, he’s now exploring the realms of transcription factor dynamics in T cells using quantitative microscopy and systems biology tools. His interests extend to being the Editor for NPR Office Hours and Friends of Joe’s Big Idea. As he grows, he’s looking forward to interacting and networking with fellow science communicators and outreach managers across the globe. Additionally, he’s also a Crisis Counselor with the 24/7 Crisis Text Line. Follow him on Twitter @ch_sayantan
Cover image: Pixabay
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