A Scientific Matchmaker
In some ways, I am like a scientific matchmaker. I spend a lot of time with scientists from startups, professors, and venture capital groups to learn about new technologies or new therapeutic approaches they are developing.
Becky Pferdehirt knew she wanted to be a scientist ever since her high school biology class. Seeing a DNA band move through agarose gel got her hooked on discovery, and she became driven toward a scientific career that she hoped would “leave the world better than I had found it,” she says.
After following a traditional educational path from a Ph.D. to postdoctoral fellow to research scientist, she now finds herself in an unconventional position at Amgen in South San Francisco, working in business development to identify potential licensing opportunities. We spoke with Pferdehirt about this path, the day to day of her job, advice to students looking at careers in science, building support for women in science, and more.
Could you please describe something that surprised you in your work.
In my new role, what surprised me was that within the month of starting, I was given the opportunity to go present directly to Amgen CEO Bob Bradway. It was really cool. The openness of Amgen’s executive management to opinions and new ideas of junior staff speaks volumes about the company’s culture. Our CEO specifically asked for the more junior, new people to come give their ideas and present fresh ideas to him. That was a huge surprise that I didn’t think I would have opportunity to do for years and has been incredibly fun.
How did you learn about business development and end up in the position you are in at Amgen?
I started meeting scientists in functions outside of research and found that I really enjoyed meeting new people. As a research scientist working at a bench, people are not always part of your day. In the first career development conversation I had with my manager at Amgen, I explained that I loved research and science but had other ideas and other skills I wasn’t using to the fullest. I was lucky to have a manager who believed in me, encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone, and was willing to let me try risky, unconventional things. He put my career above his own goals. I will be forever grateful.
When the opportunity for a business development role came across my desk, it wasn’t something I was actively looking for, and honestly it was terrifying at first – but one of those things where I felt like, why not? If I’m able to do this, try something new in the safety net of staying at the same company with people that I know and trust, what’s the worst that can happen? I could always go back to research. If you don’t try it you never know.
How did your lab experiences in college specifically help prepare you for your work now?
I worked in a research lab as an undergraduate. That was a really important experience for me and solidified my interest in science. The professor I worked for had all of us present frequently both to other lab members and to the broader community within the university. Similarly, in my Ph.D. program, we not only had regular lab meetings where we would present research, but also a peer presentation seminar series where Ph.D. students would present to other Ph.D. students on a regular basis. These types of opportunities were important to take advantage of, as confidence in public speaking is an important skill both in research as well as business development.
Was there a skill that unexpectedly prepared you for the work you do now?
One of the things I always thought was in some ways a deficit of mine rather than a strength is that I kind of have scientific ADD. I like to ask new questions, dive into new spaces, and sometimes am less interested in digging very deep and honing in on one area for years.
In bench science, you need to pick focused areas, dive deep, and answer challenging questions. In my role with tech licensing, I have to look for new technologies and innovations for all therapeutic areas – oncology, neuroscience, cardiology, metabolism, etc. I can’t be an expert in all of those places. But what I am good at is being broad and being able to learn a new area really quickly.
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in business development?
I would say to start with a strong scientific foundation. Without having spent time learning biology, learning how research works, really doing the work, I don’t think I would have the perspective needed to be able to do this type of role. I remember getting that advice as a postdoc: building a strong foundation is essential. Credibility and relationships are also important. I also think that other scientists seeing me as “one of them” who happens to work on the business side is important to success in this role. When someone respects you and values you, and likes you, it’s easier to get something done.
Another area that is important to consider is building auxiliary educational experiences, things that allow you to expand your knowledge base and communication abilities – any sort of leadership role such as student council, volunteering, or tutoring younger students in science. And don’t forget internships! College students should always take advantage of their summer breaks and do an internship in something new.
What classroom and educational experiences were most useful in preparing you for this job?
In terms of educational experiences, my Ph.D. studies in molecular biology were essential to being where I am today. This business development position isn’t a job you can study for in a book; I have had to do a lot of learning on the job. I have been lucky to have an amazing manager and coworkers to learn from who are willing to teach me, and answer a never-ending stream of questions. The Ph.D. and postdoc studies and time spent in drug discovery were all essential.
What do you do in a typical day?
One of the many things I like is the variety and unpredictability from day to day. In a typical day, I will usually meet with Amgen scientists, so I understand what they are working on, their long-term strategic goals, issues they might be having or the things that are holding them back from succeeding in the way they would like to or reaching their scientific goals.
In some ways, I am like a scientific matchmaker. I spend a lot of time with scientists from startups, professors, and venture capital groups to learn about new technologies or new therapeutic approaches they are developing. I then ask: 1) does what they are doing have scientific credibility?; and 2) if so, is there a need internally at Amgen that I could match that innovation with to help us develop new therapeutics and reach new patients? This requires me to have deep understanding of the science and what people are creating in the outside world.
You participate in an Employee Resource Group (ERG) to support women at Amgen. Can you talk about that a bit?
Our ERG (WE2) is a women-led group who supports the networking and development of women at Amgen in San Francisco, but we invite all staff to the vast majority of the events; having integration is important. One of the initiatives I started this year has been a networking lunch series. A lot of people waste their lunch hour, either grabbing something and continuing to work or skipping lunch. But a mentor once told me you should never eat lunch alone, that always eating with someone would have a big impact on your career.
In the networking series I started, people who sign up get put into a group of 3-4 different randomly matched staff to have lunch together. Then over an entire year, you have met 40-50 staff members at your site. Over a couple of years, you might meet entire site. That has been a fun thing to do through the ERG, and I have met so many new people.