Alumni Profiles Series: Joseph Volpe
Joseph M. Volpe graduated from Duke University in 2008 with a Ph.D. in computational biology and bioinformatics following his undergraduate B.S. in computer science at Wake Forest University. In 2007, he received the American Association of Immunologists-Huang Foundation Young Investigator Award for his work in anti-HIV antibody composition. After graduation, Dr. Volpe worked as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at Monogram Biosciences where he covered the Southeast and Midwest territories. In early 2016 he became Labcorp’s Director of Scientific Outreach, helping to build the MSL team. In early 2018, Dr Volpe helped establish Labcorp’s Neurology program, for which he is now the Business Segment Director and Scientific Discipline Director. He is a member of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN).
What made you decide to pursue grad school in computational biology?
I graduated with a degree in computer science from Wake Forest University and landed a job with IBM, but it didn't feel like the right fit for me. I then moved to Boston and started working for Forrester Research, a market research company. However, I felt like my skill set, interests, and brainpower were underutilized. I wanted to find a new path, so I started looking into graduate programs.
This was around 2000, when Bioinformatics became a buzzword. The power of computational biology was coming into focus, with real synergy between lab work and computational work. I feel that computer science is a discipline often in search of a purpose, and thought this was a great field to be in.
How was the transition like for you? Did you have a biology background?
I applied to six programs and interviewed here at Duke in the fall of 2002—it was the first year for the computational biology Ph.D. program here. In my opinion, disciplines like math, computer science and statistics rely a lot on teaching you modes of problem solving, and that experience is worth a lot. Duke’s program was intentionally looking for people with strong computational or mathematical backgrounds, but not necessarily biology; if you had both paradigms, great. But if not, you could pick up a book and learn the biology while applying your core computational skills—and I fit that bill.
What were your career plans when you started your graduate program?
I knew that I didn't want to pursue an academic career and made it clear during my interviews. It may sound a bit risky, but I was honest. I didn't want to deceive anyone or have any expectations placed on me that didn't align with my goals. I wanted to work in industry and knew that there were positions available. I don't see myself as the type of person who could be stuck in a lab, but I have found that my skill set is in communicating complex scientific concepts to non-science people in a simple way. They were looking for all kinds of students, so I was excited to join.
What has your post-Ph.D. career trajectory looked like?
I was very lucky to land what’s called a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) position right out of Duke. It was at Monogram Biosciences, a biotech startup in South San Francisco, that was the preeminent leader in HIV drug resistance testing. The problem they were looking to solve was in using these drug resistance tests to figure out which drugs would work on which patient and why. My role as an MSL was to communicate the science of these tests to physicians who could use them to get their patients on the right drugs. It was a position that a lot of people aim to reach in their career and then retire in, and I was starting there. You don’t see many Ph.D.s doing MSL roles because the whole point of it is interacting and communicating with physicians, and usually that’s for drug companies. But, this was lab testing, and HIV drug resistance is very scientific and I realized that I was good at communicating science, so I enjoyed it.
I did that for about nine years, but the traveling eventually became too much for me—I would often say that no one my age should have my Marriott status! The field of HIV drug resistance was consolidating rapidly as HIV increasingly transitioned to a “managed” chronic illness, like diabetes. Within my nine years, the number of companies working in the space went from about eight or nine to just two or three, so it felt like I should make a move to another role.
In my first year at Monogram, the company had been bought out by Labcorp—a giant diagnostics company that’s one of only two major primary lab diagnostic providers in the U.S. (the other being Quest). After my time as an MSL, I moved internally within the company to work with the Chief Science Officer. I was trying to develop a structure for her to take what we had done with the MSLs in the HIV space and apply it to other fields. When in 2017 the company decided to venture into neurology, she asked me to lead the creation of their Neurology program. This was exciting because it gave me a role with the power to make the decisions I was suggesting, but also tricky, because my Ph.D. had been immunological, and I knew nothing about neurology. The HIV work had fit better with my expertise. I remember the CSO saying to me, “You’re a Ph.D., you’ll figure it out. That’s what we do!” I realized that I agreed with her, and that a Ph.D. teaches you “how to learn,” rather than just a specific subject. And so I dove in.
Six years later, I am now both the Business Segment Director and the Scientific Discipline Director for Neurology. That's unusual at Labcorp. Typically, the scientists are the scientific discipline directors, and then you have someone with a specialty in business, marketing or sales as the business segment director, but my background fit both roles well. I was already so familiar with the commercial side of things from being an MSL, where I was able to translate complex ideas into soundbites for doctors. But I’m a scientist by training, so I was also able to engage with the science. It’s a fun job, but it keeps me very busy!
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The science side was the most challenging because it's intimidating and I still feel like an impostor. Being an MSL in HIV felt easier because I knew that I knew more than those doctors when it came to the virus. I didn't know as much, obviously, about the clinical side, but when it came to the drug options and resistance tests, I could go toe to toe with those doctors. Neurology feels very different to me because I've only been doing it for six years and it's an expansive field. There’s everything from Alzheimer’s to autism, and from migraines to movement disorders. No one person can know all of it, and most neurologists specialize in a subfield. However, my role requires a familiarity with all these areas to determine where to build and progress the science, while also understanding its impact on clinical outcomes. So, it’s challenging, but it’s fun, and it’s satisfying to work for a company that trusts me to do that.
What advice would you give to graduate students based on your experience?
A piece of advice that I received, and believe in, is to not be tied down to what you originally start with. As a scientist, you should be open to the idea that you could be interested in other areas and can apply your skills to it. Especially if you go to industry, the more you pigeonhole yourself, the less marketable you are. The deeper and deeper you go into a single topic, the more specialized you become. And yes, those people are extremely necessary, but those jobs are few and far between. There’s always a need for more people open to moving around.
The other thing that I feel strongly is that people need to learn how to give presentation. There’s an art to presenting science and I have found that most people do it very poorly. Like any other skill, the more you do it, the better you will get at it. I have seen truly wonderful scientists become stymied in their careers because they can’t summarize things in succinct sound bites. If you want to climb the corporate ladder, the truth is you need to be able to communicate effectively. Even if that’s not your ambition, which is totally fine, you need to do it within the scientific field as well, because it leads to better science.
I was lucky enough that as an MSL, that's primarily what my job was. I was either talking to a doctor or I was giving presentations. I gave so many presentations over nine years, I lost count. I have gotten a lot better with that practice, and I've been told by a lot of people in the company now that I'm one of the few people that they'll listen to when they talk about science. And that's always a compliment to me because the primary criticism I received from my Ph.D. committee was that I didn’t sound like a scientist. It turned out that their criticism was the key to my success.
What are your favorite memories from your time at Duke?
The basketball games were always fun. Actually, I ended up being a tutor for the basketball team, so I tutored a lot of people for computer science, including Jon Scheyer, who's now the head coach. I literally made him memorize the bubble sort [an algorithm for sorting a list of numbered elements]. He didn't understand what it meant, but he could write it out perfectly. Those were fun memories.
You still live in Durham. How has the city changed over the years?
I've lived in Durham since I graduated, so it's basically been 20 years here. Durham has definitely undergone an evolution for the good. I think Durham is an amazingly creative place now. It's a very smart place. I love the restaurants we have here and I’ve loved seeing the downtown evolve. When I started my Ph.D. here in 2003, nobody went there, there was nothing to go to, and we’d all drive to Chapel Hill. I think back in those early days, the evolution of the city was dependent upon Duke, but I see the city evolving in its own direction now, with Duke as a prominent member. I do think Duke played a prominent role in propping it up those early years. I remember Duke put a lot of money behind DPAC originally, but now things are emerging on their own, which is wonderful. People want to live there, and I just built a house downtown. It’s a cool place to be.
When you're not when you're not at work, what do you like to do?
I play the piano and I write a lot of music. I'm taking online courses right now from the Berklee College of Music learning to fine-tune the craft. Sometimes the creative process is slow. I also like to cook a lot, so I do that and I have a lot of friends over and just cook big meals.
Ph.D. student, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics
Harshit Sahay is a Ph.D. student in the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics program at Duke University. Advised by Dr. Raluca Gordan, he studies processes that lead to the formation of mutations in cancer genomes. In his free time, he likes reading, competitive trivia, and playing tennis.