Alumni Profiles Series: Jeffrey Headd

 November 8, 2023

Jeffrey Headd graduated from Duke University in 2009 with a Ph.D. degree in computational biology and bioinformatics as a member of the David and Jane Richardson lab following his undergraduate studies in computational biology (B.S.) at Brown University. He then did his postdoctoral training at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Duke before starting a career in industry as one of the first data scientists at Janssen Pharmaceuticals in 2014. Currently, he leads both the Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine (formerly Janssen Pharmaceuticals) North America Business Technology Commercial Data Science Chapter and Commercial Data & Insights Product Group as the Vice President of Commercial Data Science. He partners with commercial leadership across business functions to identify and tackle critical challenges with novel data-driven solutions. His multidisciplinary team applies expertise in artificial intelligence, explainable machine learning, data integration, and other modern analytical methods to address these challenges and generate measurable business value.

What made you decide to pursue graduate school in computational biology at Duke?

As early as when I was in high school, I discovered my love for both life sciences and computer programming. While an undergrad at Brown University, I started exploring how I could combine those two things together. There, they had a program in computational biology, which seemed like the right path for me. I did research in a lab the summer before my senior year, which gave me the opportunity to talk to graduate students about their experience in graduate school. I realized I was really passionate about science and started researching graduate programs. Back then there were only a handful of bioinformatics or computational biology programs in the country. Campus visits and meetings with faculty allowed me to get a sense of the cultures of different programs I had applied to, which ultimately brought me to Duke.

What was your career plan when you started your graduate program at Duke? How has it changed since then?

When I first started at Duke, I saw myself pursuing an academic career. I was so inspired by the faculty members that I met here and really admired the work they did. I also wanted to teach, do research, and lead a lab. As I finished my Ph.D. and did a few years of postdoctoral research, my mindset shifted a little: I was drawn to the speed to impact that I saw in our industrial collaborations; bringing the power of algorithmic science to drive a company's goals forward appealed to me. With this goal in mind, I took the chance to try something a little bit different and switched to industry. At the time I did not see it as a permanent decision, but it was the next phase of my journey, and it's been a great ten years so far working as a data scientist in industry.

How did your Ph.D. and postdoctoral training help you land a job in industry?

Both my Ph.D. and my postdoc experience taught me how to think scientifically, how to pose the right questions, and how to set up proper controlled experiments. These are foundational skills that I draw on every day in my work in industry. In addition to research, I also learned a lot by attending seminars and teaching (besides being a teaching assistant at Duke, I had the opportunity through the Richardsons to teach the macromolecular crystallography course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory every October for several years). Teaching has a wide range of applications in aspects that are important for industry jobs, such as presenting, mentoring, and even change management. For example, think of how you would explain a concept in a way that someone else is going to get excited about, believe, and understand. This exercise is something that I have to do every day in my job. It was through teaching that I learned some of the most important skills that were critical for me to make the jump to industry.

What was the most challenging thing about your transition to industry?

Learning to work with people in the company that are in very different roles and from very different trainings and backgrounds. You may be working with lawyers, finance teams, sales and marketing teams, technologists, etc. You need to find ways to communicate with others and understand what you each bring to the table in order to build teams that work together and solve problems. There was a learning process, but it was quite rewarding for me to navigate through.

"Be your own advocate..."

What advice would you share with Ph.D. students who’d like to work in industry? 

Think about your experience, your expertise, and your accomplishments in a very broad sense. Take a step back and think about what fundamental skills you demonstrated through gaining expertise through your research. Your skills are likely broadly applicable to a wide range of industries. Certainly, there are roles very related to your own research, and it’s easy to make that connection, but you probably could apply your skills in the sales and marketing department of a cereal or shoe company just as well if you think broadly enough. Be your own advocate, be your own marketer, and think about how you can tell the story of your research in terms of outcomes and impact.

In addition, it's really important to get to the point quickly when you present. If you take too long to build your story and show your supporting data, you're going to lose the audience. Instead, you want to really have a splash at the beginning: here's the problem I solved, here's the outcome, and here's why this is awesome. Then you can fill in the dots. It is instrumental to have that elevator pitch mindset and be able to sell yourself in two sentences or a few bullet points on a PowerPoint slide and move quickly. Lastly, networking is also really important. I was connected to the hiring manager of my first industry job through someone I knew from Duke.

Do you recommend people to go straight into industry after their Ph.D., or do you think they'd benefit from a postdoc?

I would say that there's no one right path and they are all good options. One thing that a leader in our company whom I admire says a lot is, “Chase experiences, not titles.” Think about what you want to do, what you want to learn, and how you want to contribute to society in your next role, which you can certainly do through a lot of different avenues. A postdoc can be helpful when it gives you a chance to show that you can have serial success in generating meaningful scientific output, solving different problems, and learning new things. It also gives you more opportunity to improve your communication and presentation skills.

At the same time, companies also hire directly out of Ph.D. programs, and that also can be a very fulfilling and successful career path. We recognize that a Ph.D. degree can be helpful for an industry job in that you learn how to think in a really deep way. You spend many years thinking about hard problems that have never been solved, and in addition to how to solve them, the resilience that comes along with failure are all skills that you can’t learn in a semester or two. You can quickly learn academic content such as algorithms and how to program, but it's those softer, transferable skills that come from what it takes to achieve a Ph.D. that help people thrive in their careers in industry. Those intangible skills translate very well to applied science.

What is one thing you miss about being at Duke?

There are so many things I miss about Duke. Certainly, the people. There is a great culture here. It is a unique environment where you're surrounded with so many others who are passionate about science and research, which you only get at a major research institution. Being surrounded with people like that every day was really inspiring for me. And I do miss the basketball games. I went to a lot of games and camped out every year when I was here. I also loved this area. The food is amazing, the culture is amazing, and the access to the oceans and the mountains is amazing—Durham is placed at such a rare position to have all of those things.

Editors’ note: If you’d like to learn more about his career, you can find a video interview with Dr. Headd on Duke Career Center’s website.


danting jiang headshot
Danting Jiang

Ph.D. student, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics

Danting Jiang is a Ph.D. student in the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Program at Duke University. Her research focuses on the impact of gut microbiota on infectious disease. In her free time, she likes taking her cat Apollo on walks and hosting dinner parties with her friends.