Alumni Profiles Series: Soma Banik
Dr. Soma Banik is the Director of Communications at Integral Molecular. She received her Ph.D. in Pharmacology at Duke in 2002, working in the lab of Dr. Christopher Counter. After completing her degree, she worked as a research scientist at Boehringer Ingelheim. At Integral Molecular, she started as a bench scientist developed her own career path and is now the Director of Communications where she develops and oversees science communications, works closely with scientists, and has been actively involved in recruitment.
What was your career goal in graduate school, and how did that lead you to a science communication career?
From the beginning, I pictured myself as a scientist in pharma rather than staying in academia. While I was in grad school, I really enjoyed what I was doing in the lab and was also interested in communications. I think science is beautiful, so I love talking about it and try to make it more accessible to others.
I've had a very gradual transition away from the bench and into a career of communication, marketing, and writing peer reviews and publications. After graduation, I worked in HIV drug discovery at Boehringer Ingelheim for two years. I definitely did a lot of networking to be able to get my current position. When I came to Integral Molecular in Philadelphia, I started in the lab but also worked on papers and grants. I got more involved in the communication side of things as we commercialized our products. I was able to take a lot of forks in the road and develop my career path. My role is ideal for me, since I enjoy the big picture while still being close to the bench and experimental data.
Could you tell us a bit more about your current job?
As I mentioned, I'm still very close to the experiments. My job is to take the work being done by scientists and translate it for audiences who see our work in different formats including websites, publications, press releases and slides. I spend a lot of time writing, but not as much as you might think. I talk with colleagues across the company to figure out what they need, consider how to deliver the message to different audiences, and then develop materials, including visuals. I am at the computer for the most of my time, which is not my favorite, but I am glad that I still use my science brain. I attend lab meetings, and I still help troubleshooting experiments and analyzing data when I have opportunities.
My company has grown from 20 to 80 people since I joined. I enjoy working in a small biotech company where I have a lot of interactions. I love that people doing the experiments, sales, marketing, etc. all work under the same roof. I work closely with the scientific communications and marketing teams and can always count on lots of lively discussions. The company is small enough that I can have my hands in many tasks. My role as Director of Communications requires that I oversee numerous aspects of the company on the communication side, but I also get to roll up my sleeves and create. In a small biotech company, we focus on whatever needs to be done. This requires a lot of adaptability as well as an openness to new ideas because there is always something new to learn.
What kinds of projects are you excited about right now?
Our company has a wealth of experience in virology. When the pandemic started, we were able to fill the gaps by developing techniques and technologies for researchers studying coronavirus. It was really rewarding to help launch those technologies.
What skills do you think are sought after in a science communication job?
For science communication, it’s really about being informative, concise, and good with visuals at the same time. You must be able to take away unnecessary complexity and condense complex ideas into their essentials. This can be done in words or graphics such as pictures or an infographic. To be honest, I learned a lot of these skills while working on projects. Things are needlessly complicated sometimes, but I love it when they can be simplified. When you look at it and say, “Aha, I get it!” it’s very satisfying. I always think, “Does it still make sense if I don’t know what I know right now?” I try to look at the information from the outside, and it seems overwhelming, that’s my cue to simplify a little bit.
What experiences in graduate school helped you succeed in your current job?
In graduate school, I had a very supportive mentor, which is was key. I felt comfortable talking with my mentor, Chris, about my interests and career goals. I was part of some student initiatives, and I felt I could be very honest with him about whatever I was working on. Also, I was always interested in editing, and he was happy to get me involved. When Chris was asked to contribute to some book chapters, I was thrilled that he asked me to get involved. I also helped to polish papers and grants in his lab. I felt like Chris definitely looked for opportunities that were good for me and my career. I can’t even describe how huge that is.
Initiative and leadership are extremely important qualities that might not seem to top of the list of priorities in graduate school. While in graduate school I helped to head a couple of initiatives as a liaison between students and faculty. These were experiences that interviewers definitely wanted to hear about when I was job searching. Now I am on the other side of hiring: I have done hundreds of interviews and know what a company looks for. We look for technical skills, cultural fit, and people who are interested in owning their roles. For anyone interested in scientific communications, my advice is to seek out opportunities such as working on presentations and helping colleagues or friends with papers, especially if English is not their strongest language.
As someone involved in recruiting, could you give us some tips for résumé writing?
In my recruiting role I would say I initially scan a résumé in less than 30 seconds. It's not a long time. It’s important to focus on the results to show your accomplishments. Quantify your results when you can, and showcase your leadership experience, because people are interested. In addition, I think effective résumés should be organized well and easily digested. If your résumé is well formatted and important pieces of information jump out, you will be at an advantage.
What advice do you want to give to current graduate students?
I remember before I started my graduate study at Duke, my supervisor at my internship at Glaxo Wellcome suggested to not just think about the area of study I was interested in, but also the working environment and the mentor I wanted to have. These factors are so important when students are developing as scientists. I took that advice to heart, and I am glad I did. When I finally picked my lab, it was a really good combination. I thought that telomerase was fascinating but I also felt at home in my lab and had a great relationship with my mentor. He was interested in teaching and providing a good learning environment for me. I would like to share the advice that was given to me. Do not only think about the field you want to study in, but also consider the environment where you can have a good learning experience and grow as a student.
Ph.D. candidate, Pharmacology and Cancer Biology
Yihan Liao is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. She studies osteoarthritis associated cartilage degradation and pain in the laboratory of Dr. Matthew J. Hilton. Yihan enjoys translational research and participated in the Duke Scholars in Molecular Medicine Program, where she gained more clinical experience. In her future career, she wants to continue her passion for working in healthcare by connecting the bench and bedside.