Shweta Krishnan received her Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Cancer Biology in 2014. During her postdoc at Johns Hopkins University, she worked as an intern in their technology transfer office, which gave her professional experience in the field. She came back to Duke and joined the Office of Licensing and Ventures in 2016, working as a licensing analyst, with a focus on biological sciences.
Tell us about your experience as a graduate student at Duke.
I came to Duke under the Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) program, and I was in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology (PCB). I worked in Donald McDonnell’s Lab for about five years. Luckily for me, Donald was very supportive as I tried to expand my resume beyond academic courses. He was okay with me taking classes from the business school, for example, and a Biology class called “Succeeding beyond Graduate School: Career Options with a Ph.D. in the Biological Sciences.”
Did you start your licensing career right after your Ph.D., or did you consider other options?
I certainly was considering a few options when I graduated. I was open to postdoc positions, careers in life science consulting, scientific writing, clinical research, and technology transfer as well. It was only during my postdoc at Johns Hopkins University that I actively pursued an internship in the technology transfer office. I could see for myself whether I really liked this career path, because sometimes we love the concept of something, but it does not necessarily mean the love translates to day-to-day enthusiasm continuing the job. After I did that internship, I became very confident that I wanted to do technology transfer.
Did your graduate school experience benefit your current career?
Yes! My lab in general has connections to industry, and my principal investigator was pretty excited about new technology and interacted with our licensing office. I also took a class through the business school which exposed me to a lot of what is done in the licensing office. I think the Ph.D. experience is hugely helpful and very relevant to this career. This entire career track involves interacting with academic researchers, understanding their science, and playing a role in analyzing the commercial potential of that science. In my position, I figure out the best next steps to optimally extract the commercial potential for the science conducted by Duke researchers. The science background is needed to intelligently converse with researchers and understand the science they do. It’s really exciting because I get to meet the most enthusiastic and brilliant minds at Duke.
What’s your job like on a day-to-day basis?
It’s a whole wide spectrum of things, which is the great part because there is no specific “set day” for my job. A big part of the job is meetings, which first involves meeting new innovators and educating them about the process in our office. Then I go back to my desk to figure out whether their inventions actually have commercial potential, looking both at the patentability and competitive market landscape. If the inventions look promising, I have a conversation with our lawyer to discuss what the best patent strategy is for the inventions. Once the inventions are taken forward, I start to market the technology, so I might have conversations with the company representatives and people from venture capital firms who are interested in the new technology. All of these steps in the process are in parallel: while finding commercial value for the technology, I might have a few other meetings with the innovators again to make sure everything is going on the right track and they are comfortable with what we are proposing. If everything goes well and we actually have a company that is interested in the technology, I would have conversations with the company about the science, and then we would have to come up with a legal agreement. It’s a lot of fun because you get to play a real role in figuring out the next step for a promising therapy. You might be working with the innovator who develops the next blockbuster cancer drug!
Can you offer any general advice for graduate students?
Pick any area of a profession that you enjoy, and find a way to connect with the office where the job is practiced to get some hands-on experience. Reach out to Duke alumni who work in the field, to get an informational interview or perhaps even an internship, and of course try to get your supervisor’s support on that. If your goal is not bench research, you have to find a way to get the experience on your resume, to show the employers that you actually went outside your comfort zone.
Do not be afraid that you do not have any skills besides doing research. A Ph.D. is not only about expertise in your area of research; it is about finding the unknown. You figure out how to conduct and troubleshoot the experiments, you get a cool result, and you think about what the next steps are, trying to strategize based on the data. You keep yourself motivated, use your time efficiently, and juggle several projects together. All of these require a level of discipline, hard work, resourcefulness and intelligence. You already have a lot of skills that companies are looking for. You just need to know that and learn to market the skills to the outside world.
If you need help documenting your skills, try working with the Career Center. They have great advice on writing your resume in very effective ways.
How can students get involved with the licensing office if they are interested in this profession and want to gain relevant skills?
The best way to gain the skills that this job requires is to do an internship. Our office has a technology transfer fellow program, similar to the internship program I participated in at Johns Hopkins. Several other universities like Columbia, Harvard, and UCLA have programs like this, too. Interns receive training in patentability and market analysis, which is a great opportunity to learn about the commercial side of science. The internship opens door for students into several other tracks, such as consulting in life sciences and engineering, business development, patent law, and of course technology transfer itself. The internship is flexible and students can do the job from home. It is also paid. The 2018-2019 call for applications is available now, and the deadline is September 14.
Editors' note: If you're interested in learning more about the skills Dr. Krishnan used to succeed in her career path, join her for a roundtable event on Business Skills for Graduate Students and Postdocs on October 30, 2018, offered as part of the 2018-19 Careers Beyond Academia series.
Ph.D. student, Biochemistry
Jimin Hu is a second-year Ph.D. student in Biochemistry. She studies protein glycosylation in the vesicle trafficking process. She enjoys talking to people about their careers and hearing insiders’ stories.
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