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AREA OF WORK

PRECLINICAL DRUG DISCOVERY IN NEUROSCIENCE WITH FOCUS ON ELECTROPHYSIOLOGY, OPTOGENETICS, AND DATA ANALYSIS

AT IST AUSTRIA

Philipp Schönenberger was a postdoc in the Csicsvári group from 2011 to 2015 before moving to his current position in industry. He is now a research scientist at Roche, a multinational healthcare company. He works in preclinical drug discovery in neuroscience with focus on electrophysiology, optogenetics, and data analysis.

During a visit to IST Austria in June 2017, he talked to Daniela Klammer and Kathrin Pauser about what it is like to be a researcher in industry, how he perceives the transition from academia to industry, and how to be successful in the job application process.

Also while on campus, he gave current students helpful tips on how to successfully apply to industry jobs during a special Think&Drink.

WHAT IS WRITTEN ON YOUR BUSINESS CARD?

This is simple: “scientist”.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF YOUR JOB? WHAT IS THE COOLEST THING ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?

The coolest thing about my job is that we provide data that informs decisions about how to move ahead with projects. I like publications, but they can be the end of a story: everybody is happy, and you move on to the next thing. In our case, however, if we have data that is useful, it will be used later by other teams. This is very satisfying.

WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE FUTURE?

Somewhere around science, I think. I am a scientist at my heart, and now, I have seen more and more functions around science that are extremely interesting. So, while I don’t think I want to do experiments for the rest of my life, I want to be close to science. I particularly like this place between the preclinical and clinical development phases because it represents a major challenge in drug discovery. It’s a high risk transition, and if I can contribute to bridging that gap, then this is an enormous achievement as well as an interesting challenge.

WHAT IS YOUR ACADEMIC BACKGROUND?

I have a master’s in cell biology; in particular, I studied viral infections and the transport of viruses. Later, I moved into in vitro neuroscience in order to understand how neurons exchange signals. Then, it was a natural step to ask the same questions, but this time for the “intact” animal—in particular, to understand how neuron communication contributes to the formation of memories. That is essentially why I came to IST and chose to work with Jozsef.

WHAT ROLE DID IST AUSTRIA PLAY IN YOUR CAREER?

It is here that I learned the concepts behind this kind of research, and gained the expertise necessary to perform it. It was absolutely fun, and also prerequisite for my current function. Plus, scientifically speaking, this kind of research is the most interesting thing you can do. My world view is still influenced by these experiences.

WHAT ARE THREE PIECES OF ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE TO CURRENT IST STUDENTS?

I encourage everybody to go to job fairs. I thought I was always too busy for that, and I don’t like networking. But I would still encourage everyone to do this. Even if you find out that something is not your cup of tea, then at least you know.

I think the difficult thing is the transition from academia to a place you don’t know. Industry was a big unknown—at least it was for me—but I now realize it was the same for most of my colleagues. Talking to people and networking helps a lot. That’s one thing I would definitely encourage.

And then, it’s not a bad idea to build up your CV a bit. Things like mentoring experience don’t hurt, a one- or two-day project management course can be helpful, too. All these things that you hear about, but usually ignore. When a company gets applications, they have a few things they want to see. It is so much easier when they know somebody has been exposed to industry, so they know the applicant knows roughly how it works and is interested. Your CV is what they use to make that first decision.

WHAT ABOUT INTERNSHIPS?

Internships help, I did one. Back then I was not specifically interested in disease, but during my master’s I did an internship in Cardiff in a group that works on Huntington’s disease. Of course I wrote that in bold letters on my cover letter. Why? Because a company looks for someone with not only the skills, but also the interest. Somebody who understands the questions behind the research. In a cover letter or CV, an internship is like a label: “I tried it, I liked it”. If you have a chance to do an industry internship, it is very valuable: it can be a door opener…and it can also make you certain that you don’t want to go into industry!

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MEMORY OF IST? WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT?

One specific event I remember is when—after a year and a half of work—my experiment worked for the first time. That is something I will always remember, first because it was really hard, and second because all these people said: “This can’t work, the physics almost forbids this.” This was a scientific “eureka” moment.

And then, I have many fond memories of sitting at the IST pond with my colleges and taking lots of time to discuss ideas in depth. I don’t have time for this now, and this is what I miss.

WHAT WAS THE DETERMINING FACTOR FOR YOUR POST-IST CAREER MOVE?

The diverse options—in the longer run—that you have in a company. For me, that was the most important factor.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO COME TO IST?

Very simple! There are only a handful of labs in Europe that do this type of research, and Jozsef’s was one of them. He told me from the beginning that he was moving to IST, and I thought living in Vienna must be fantastic…I loved living in Klosterneuburg, it was a pleasure to be able to cycle to work and still be only 20 minutes from the city.

HOW DID THE RECRUITMENT PROCESS WORK?

I saw the job and thought it sounded very interesting, and that it would be an excellent opportunity. Then, I contacted someone I know who worked at Roche, to get an idea of what they are looking for in an applicant. Later, they contacted me for a phone  interview.

ARE THERE SOME TIPS YOU COULD GIVE FOR SUCCESSFUL JOB INTERVIEWS?

Practice a lot, and even rehearse for a possible video interview. While preparing, check things like the background, and make sure there would be good light, but for instance no window behind you.

Also come up with some questions beforehand. Don’t be passive! It’s good to show interest, and not only that, it is your chance to find out if this is the right job for you.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RESEARCH IN ACADEMIA AND IN INDUSTRY?

Research in academia and research in industry are both science on a high level, but in industry, research is far more cooperative. We have to work together: it is not only the group that has to succeed, it is the entire section.