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TCP Informational Interview Series: Dr. Pamela Hornby

December 30, 2015
Interview conducted by Naeem Patil and Ross Corriden

TCP Informational Interview Series: Dr. Pamela Hornby

Pamela Hornby, Ph.D., AGAF, is a Senior Scientific Director and Research Fellow at Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies and an Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology in the Dept. Pharmacology and Physiology at Drexel University Medical School. She is the current chair of ASPET’s Translational and Clinical Pharmacology Division. 

Dr. Hornby discussed her transition from academia to industry, providing a unique perspective based on her experience in a diverse variety of research environments.

1. Could you tell us about your job history?  I have been a Professor, Consultant and R&D leader* of research teams exploring the pharmacology of the gastrointestinal tract from neural, immune and metabolic perspectives. I am and always will be a research scientist at heart and enjoy the challenge of learning new scientific approaches and the diversity of thought from multiple perspectives.

2. Why did you choose this career? Growing up and during my career I have personally witnessed the day-to-day morbidity associated with illness of the GI tract. As a newly minted post-doc, my mentor, Dr. Richard Gillis, engaged my curiosity about the role of the CNS in the physiology of the gut, and I built my academic lab around Brain-Gut interactions. Ultimately, this expanded to an appreciation of the influence of the enteric nerves and immune, microbial and metabolic systems on the gut; however, I wanted to make a more direct difference in patient’s lives, which led to my joining industry and helping to discover Viberzi, a drug approved for the treatment of diarrhea-predominant Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I have always strived to be a patient-oriented scientist and seek clinical input on relevant questions to test in the lab.

3. Could you tell us about your transition from academia to industry research position? While in academia, I had risen to the rank of full professor with a well-established and funded laboratory, but I was at a point in my career where I was interested in exploring alternative research paths. I had a short sabbatical at AstraZeneca in Molndal Sweden, where I learned the exciting nature of an industry job with a constant focus on translational research. After this experience, I was contacted by J&J to lead a gastrointestinal therapeutic discovery team. While in this role, I realized that in industry upper management will support research ideas as long as they are well-reasoned and potentially impactful for patients, allowing one to engage a team with diverse expertise. This contrasts with my experience in academic labs, where government funding agencies tend to focus on the PI’s depth of expertise and place more of an emphasis on extensive preliminary data. Despite the differences in how support is obtained, I feel that research is equally rewarding and exciting in both industry and academia.

4. Describe a typical day in your job. Much of my day is spent reviewing data and working with colleagues to design experiments; importantly, there is always time each day for encouraging and mentoring scientists. Any extra time is used for writing summaries of key findings, internal and external R&D business strategy and manuscripts.

5. What things do you like most about your job? I like being entrepreneurial and working at the edge of our knowledge to push the boundaries of discovery, trying to understand what data are telling us from Excel spreadsheets, big data (‘omics’) and graphs,being bench-associated, if not actually at the bench, each day, and bringing enthusiasm and encouraging alternative thinking when results are not as expected.

6. What is the most challenging part in your job? Finding the best way to simply describe complex results to help upper management (e.g., VPs, CEOs) understand the impact of our work. The “two minute elevator pitch” speak is challenging, but such skill really can make a difference.

7. What parts of your job are essential but least enjoyable? Reviewing and providing feedback on colleagues’ performance that is balanced, informed and helpful. Apart from this, the frequent changes in organization and strategy in industry, as compared to the academia, are a challenging part of the job.

8. Thinking retrospectively about your career, would you have done anything differently? Instead of being so goal-oriented, I would have taken more time to listen and think. One needs time to think to interpret data correctly (particularly if it doesn’t support your hypothesis) and understand ideas that may initially seem out of the left field (rather than simply dismissing them). Also, in hindsight, I think it is critical to be able to view science with a broader perspective, rather than focus exclusively on the details of one’s own research niche.

9. What advice do you have for new graduates looking for jobs? I believe that the most important thing for choice of post-doc training is to find a situation where you can have an impact on ongoing work. This impact can derive from training received as grad student, your diversity of thought, or technologies with which you are familiar. It is a powerful incentive for your scientific career to make a novel contribution and be recognized for how it has changed the perspective of ongoing work. This can occur whether you are continuing in the same field, moving to a different field, or even transitioning into an alternative career.

10. What are some entry level jobs in your field?  In industry, associate entry level jobs are for folks with a BS or MS and technical experience; research scientists usually have a PhD or equivalent experience, in addition to a number of years of post-doctoral experience.

11. What major developments do you see in your field over the next 5-10 years? What do you see as the best opportunities for young people entering this field?  Translational and clinical research with direct links to health and disease has already burgeoned into prime time. However, human primate tissue and patients are an incredibly valuable limiting resource with large variability compared to inbred mouse strains or cell based experimental design. To help address this problem, I think data generation will shift from individual cause-effect hypothesis testing to include big data ‘omic’ platforms that are subsequently published for anyone to search. With open access data, hypotheses can be built and initially tested by data mining in these banks more rapidly and with more confidence, leading to testing in new patient populations or tissue.

Nutraceuticals will also emerge and will be driven by the consumer, where medicine will be aimed at treating those with a disease-risk rather than with the disease, possibly using Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) substances. The limitations in terms of exclusivity and intellectual property may have to be incorporated into the Pharma model.

12. Currently, pharmaceutical industry jobs are difficult to obtain. What advice do you have for young graduates aspiring to work in the industry?  While it is indeed difficult to find full time jobs in traditional Big Pharma, contract work is becoming more commonplace. Such experiences can enable you to “learn the ropes” and can often lead to permanent jobs (since they enable you to become a “known entity”). In addition, Biotechnology, new start-ups and Venture Capital funding in novel areas - such as the druggability of the microbiome for disease modification - are all very active and are a potential career start for new graduates and post-docs. These give you an overall feel for the business and can set you up for research or alternative careers, or even consulting work.

13. What can young professionals do during their graduate/postdoc studies to make themselves more competitive?  Learn as much as you can while you have the luxury! Be deep in your knowledge area but flexible in how you apply it broadly to other processes and problems. Research is just a way of thinking that can be applied in many many ways beyond the lab you are currently in. Try not to dismiss any idea until you have understood it and ask if you don’t. Network and find mentors who you connect with and define specific goals to reach.

* Details:  Dr. Hornby received her PhD in Physiology from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Kentucky with post-doctoral training at the Center for Brain Research, University of Rochester NY, and in the Department of Pharmacology, Georgetown University Medical School, where she was appointed Research Assistant Professor in 1988. From 1991-2001 she rose through the ranks of Assistant to Full Professor with tenure in the Department of Pharmacology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, LA. She was recruited to Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research to lead a newly-formed Gastrointestinal Research Team, which from 2001-2005 brought forward several promising therapeutics, with the most advanced being Viberzi, approved for the treatment of diarrhea-predominant Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She then worked in Biotechnology (Centocor R&D), where she fostered novel delivery platforms for monoclonal antibodies. She now works in Metabolic Disease Therapeutic Discovery at Janssen with a focus on Host Intestine and Microbiome Metabolism for obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

We thank Dr. Hornby for her time and insights.

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Last Updated: September 21, 2018

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