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Science Careers: Interview with Helen McBride

Name: Helen McBride

Current Employer: Amgen

Job title: Principal Scientist

What is your field of science and/or engineering?

This is a tough question as it asks me to pick just one. Right now I work in immunology (study of the immune system), but my previous experience has been in bio-engineering (microscopy), developmental biology (how organisms develop from embryos to adults) and molecular biology (in baker's yeast). Scientists tend to develop their skills in multiple areas over the course of their career.

Time working in this field: I first started working in a research lab as an undergraduate to generate data for a senior thesis. That was in 1990. I've been working in labs ever since. That brings the number up to 21 years so far.

How would you describe what you do to a student? How would you describe your particular area of science and/or engineering to a student?

As a scientist in a biotech company, I ask questions about how immune cells work in human diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Learning how the immune system goes haywire in disease helps me think about how to help patients struggling with those diseases through the development of new drugs. I still work in the lab myself, but most of my day is spent meeting with other scientists, physicians, and business folks at Amgen to make sure we're all aligned as to what my group should be doing.

My particular area of science right now focuses on the immune system, which protects an animal from infectious agents including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasitic organisms. When the immune system starts attacking its host (your body), those conditions are called "auto-immune" disorders, and there are a variety affecting humans that you can probably recall if you think for a moment: multiple sclerosis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease (Cohn's and ulcerative colitis), rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus are just a few.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

You have to enjoy asking questions every day. And you have to be persistent in the face of adversity when the answers don't immediately make sense or contradict how everyone else thinks they work. You must be creative in how you solve problems. And you must be able to focus on one area intensively for a long time to make sure you're able to ask good questions.

How did you become interested in this area of science and/or engineering?

I was set on becoming a physician until I was in the middle of my undergraduate degree. I had always had an interest in science—both physics and biology. Medicine seemed like a logical choice in high school, as I knew I also wanted to help people, and physics at the time seemed too esoteric. I still don't know why I never thought of engineering! Once I started working in a research lab as a junior in my undergraduate training, I never looked at medical school again. I knew I wanted to work in a lab and learn to be a really good scientist.

What did you study in high school, undergrad, graduate school?

In high school I was focused on biology and took several honors courses in a science magnet. But I was also keenly interested in physics and took classes in that topic as well. I took as much math as I could. For my school that was through advanced calculus. As an undergraduate, I switched my major several times and in the end settled on microbiology. The lab I worked in studied the interactions between a plant virus (tobacco etch virus) and its host (the tobacco plant). As a graduate student, I rotated through several labs before deciding on one that studies molecular biology in bakers' yeast, particularly how genes are activated during the yeast cell's life cycle. I obtained my PhD in oncological sciences (cancer research), because my lab was in a cancer center, not because my work in any way related to cancer research.

What do you do during a typical day at work?

Hmmm. That fortunately varies, or I would become very bored. I set aside one day a week to be in the research lab. The other days are spent either communicating to folks by email or phone to hand off data/information between scientists and meetings to discuss new data and the next steps in our research. Communication is a key way we operate in a company, and is distinctly different from my work as an academic researcher. I also have time most days for reading scientific papers. I also do quite a bit of experimental design for those I work with. I plan the details of my studies days and sometimes weeks in advance, so when I do get into the lab, it is very focused and productive.

How would you describe your work environment to a student?

Most of my work takes place in a very nice and cozy private office with a lovely view of the landscaping on our campus. The rest of my work takes place in a standard research lab filled with machines and other technology that aid in various research questions. The rest of my time is spent in conference rooms, which I can say are not exciting or particularly attractive!

What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything that you do not like?

I most enjoy getting my own data from an experiment. When you are running an experiment for the first time, you don't know the answer to the question you're asking. So when you get that answer, it's very exciting even when it's not the one you hoped for. The feeling of discovering even a small thing that no one else in the world knows is just amazing. What I don't like is when I have meetings literally all day long with no breaks. By the end of the day I don't feel very productive as I tend to run out of steam half way through one of those days and really don't feel like the meetings accomplished much as a result.

Describe a project that you have worked on that was of particular interest to you.

While a postdoctoral fellow, I started working on how a particular human disease, Hirschprung's disease, occurs. I was born with the disease and as a result had to have several surgeries as a young child to correct a defective colon. The disease forms because cells that make up the nervous system of the gut don't travel all the way to the end of the intestine. Instead they stop somewhere along the way, leaving a section at the end without the nerves that make the gut work. The experience of being in a hospital almost continuously for 3 years left me with a life-long interest in medicine and human disease. I began imaging glowing cells that make up the nervous system of the gut as they migrated into the colon of mice as a model for the human disease. Just watching their amazing dance as they glided into the tissue was so exciting. And when I finally was able to block their movement in different ways to mimic the human disease, it was even more exciting to see how they reacted. That work led to my current interest in developing drugs to treat human disease, instead of just studying the mechanism of a disease as I did in an academic research lab.

What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field?

In junior high and high school, make sure to take as much math and science as you can. And if something is not offered like Calculus or AP classes, take them at a junior college near you. If possible, volunteer to work in a research lab at a local university. You may end up washing dishes for months before they let you do anything fun, but being in the lab and seeing how things work is really important. Do undergraduate research every summer that you can through internship or paid research opportunities. And if you can volunteer during the year as well make sure to do that. That is the best way to get a publication out of your hard work. And it helps you craft research questions over time through practice. By the time you graduate with your undergraduate degree, you'll be well prepared to know thyself and know if a career in research is right for you! And if an advanced degree is in your future, then you'll also be ready to get started fast in whatever type of research setting you go into!