Alumni Profiles Series: I-hung Shih
I-hung Shih received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Duke in 2000 and has built a diverse set of skills and experiences after graduation. Following a research fellowship at NIH and a postdoc at MIT, she began a role as a Research Scientist at Gilead Science, Inc., where she was promoted to Senior Manager in 2009. During that time, she completed her M.B.A at The Wharton School. In 2011, she pivoted to a career in investment banking as an Associate with Credit Suisse, then worked as an Investment Professional with Temasek, a Biotech Global Analyst with T. Rowe Price, and began working at Wellington Management as a Biotech Analyst in 2018 before being promoted to her current role in 2021. Currently, she is Head of Biomedical Innovation, a private equity fund at Wellington Management.
TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF.
I grew up in Taiwan, finished my undergraduate degree in Chemistry at National Taiwan University, and came to Duke in 1995. At that time, ribozyme was just discovered, and I started to become interested in RNA biochemistry. So, I joined the lab of Professor Michael Been studying the catalytic mechanism of HDV ribozyme. I still remember that I really enjoyed doing experiments when I was at Duke, and eventually we were very lucky to make a breakthrough discovery.
WHAT PROFESSIONAL OR CAREER PLANS DID YOU HAVE IN MIND AT DUKE?
Initially, I thought that I might not be good enough for academic research, so I was planning to go to industry. Then in my fourth year at Duke, our lab made a scientific breakthrough and published a paper in the journal Science. At that moment, I started to be more confident about myself in research, so I decided to stay in academia and spent five years as a postdoc at NIH first and then the Whitehead Institute later.
After more than ten years of training and a handful of offers of assistant professorships, I realized that a career in academic research as a professor may not be the path for me, and I began looking for opportunities in the biopharma industry. I interviewed at a handful of biopharmaceutical companies, both large-cap pharma and mid-cap biotech companies. Gilead Sciences stood out as a place where making medicine was front and center for the scientists there, which really piqued my interest. At Gilead, I was working on drug discovery for hepatitis C, and gradually I learned that advancing medicine is my passion and calling. I found it especially rewarding because I was helping patients fight disease. I would say my decision to join Gilead was probably the most exciting transition in my career. It was especially rewarding that after a multi-year effort, the drug candidate I worked on became a blockbuster medicine that cured millions of hepatitis C patients.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO TRANSITION FROM BASIC MEDICAL RESEARCH TO BIOTECH INVESTMENT?
I was lucky to be part of the team that advanced medicines for hepatitis C successfully. That really kept me going for many years. However, during this time, I pondered what other jobs could better match my interests and talents, while keeping me in the forefront of medicine advancement. With a few side steps I eventually settled on the investment side. To me, investment in biotechnology is to allocate capital to the most promising drug candidates and medicines to improve patients’ lives. I am staying true to my calling and making a contribution to humanity.
COULD YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR CURRENT JOB? WHAT DOES YOUR TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
My current job focuses on private biotech investment from series A to crossover. My daily work includes meeting management teams, learning about their companies, digging into data from preclinical and clinical studies as part of the due diligence process and working with my team to make the final investment decisions. I still read scientific and medical journals broadly and discuss with brilliant scientists and physicians to keep abreast of cutting-edge biomedical discoveries or technologies. I am really blessed to have my dream job.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO CURRENT STUDENTS AT DUKE?
There are three things I would suggest to current Duke students. First and foremost is finding your passion and sticking with it. It’s okay if it takes a while to find your passion. In my case, only after finishing a Ph.D. and two postdocs did I realize that my passion is making medicine. Reflecting on my career path, my time at Gilead was the defining moment when I learned where I would like to set my career path.
Secondly, it’s okay if you don’t get your dream job at first. It’s not that I wasted so many years in searching; I learned about critical thinking and laid a very strong foundation in biomedical research. That eventually became my edge in my current job.
Thirdly, stay open-minded and to talk to people outside of your comfort zone. Eventually, your experience will lead you, and you’ll find your strengths and weaknesses along the way. Sometimes, your career path is not a straight line. Mine is a zigzag.
Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry
Jennifer Cheng is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Biochemistry in the School of Medicine. She studies the structure and function of proteins in the laboratory of Dr. Pei Zhou. Jennifer enjoys the basic research in drug discovery and development and is actively exploring different career options to make her contribution in the medical field. Follow her on Twitter.