Senior Molecular Geneticist
at JUNO Genetics
by the p2i Network
Dr Lorena Di Lisio
Since this interview was conducted, Lorena has moved on to start an exciting new role at Juno Genetics as Senior Molecular Geneticist, where she looks forward to continuing to transfer her learning and expand her abilities.
It would be great if initially, you could give us a snapshot of where you are now and what lead you to pursuing a career in industry.
“I work for GeneFirst, a molecular diagnostic company focused on early cancer screening and detection. After completing my PhD in molecular biology, I worked as Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, where I got involved in Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) and precision medicine. My current goal is to translate the skills I have developed over the years in academia into a company context.
One of the things that attracted me to GeneFirst was that the company was starting a project to investigate the clinical utility of its novel NGS technology in bowel cancer screening. Furthermore, I was very interested in experiencing the process of product development of scientific kits that are essential for laboratory function.”
What was the turning point in your career path that led you to join a start-up like GeneFirst?
“The interest in joining a start-up started early on in my career, although I didn’t really know what to expect. My desire to explore the world outside of academia is one of the reasons I decided to enroll in the p2i online course. I was hoping to find some answers or insight to help me make a decision about my next career move. Had the opportunity to enroll in the course occurred sooner, I may have discovered this interest even earlier.”
Can you describe what GeneFirst does and what your role/position is in the company?
“GeneFirst is an ISO certified company that operates in the molecular diagnostic field with two Research and Development (R&D) work streams. One of these work streams focuses on the detection of infectious diseases, including Human Papillomavirus and COVID-19 (so you can imagine how busy we have been recently), and the other one focuses on early cancer screening, both of which are underpinned by proprietary technologies. We develop our products using our own technologies, place them on the market and offer them to customers.
I am employed as a senior scientist in the R&D team, however, we recently identified an opportunity for me in project management, so I am now involved in many aspects of management. I’ve also been involved in business development, applications and production.
In a start-up or a small company, it is indeed crucial to be versatile and adaptable.”
Is there a recent achievement you are especially proud of?
“After working in a company for a while, I tend to see my achievements as those of the company. I’m not independent from them; in fact, when I work on something, it will be in line with the mission of the company. For instance we have been very responsive during the pandemic and were able to offer COVID-19 PCR testing kits early on, and we are still developing new products to better address the current needs. We have to expand our production capabilities to meet the demands, and it has been an amazing journey to be involved in.
If I had to pick a personal achievement, I would say that despite the pandemic being a challenging time, I have been able to see myself growing, developing and progressing in line with my goals and aspirations.
I have been able to apply my skills in an industry setting, and I now understand more about product development and some of customer facing activities. Plus as an extra, I have been able to formalise my project management skills, by becoming PRINCE2 qualified with the support of the company. I now enjoy seeing this pay off in the projects that I have been managing. When there are a lot of pieces that have to end up together, you want it all to run smoothly: it’s team work.”
What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how have you overcome this challenge?
“How things happen in industry is slightly different from academia. Frequently in academia there's a lot of proof of concept, with publishing being the end point, but in industry the end point is typically a product, a process or a service. There is a different structure, different boundaries and obviously you have to refocus and adapt.
In industry there are also many more discussions about market trends and customers’ needs.
I think you have to find a way to fit into the system. I discovered the way to merge is to be ready to explain very well what you want to do and why. I found it helpful to have a very well thought-out case to present and discuss with your peers.”
In your experience, what are the similarities and differences between Academia and industry, in respect to mindset and skills?
“There are obviously things that are similar and things that are different.
In both environments everyone works diligently towards their goals, so being a hard worker would be a common trait.
Communication skills are fundamental in both academia and industry. In academia you have to be able to communicate and present your work very well which includes publications. In industry it is also important to ensure people understand why your idea is important and why it should be adopted.
Then, I would say that a very open mindset is needed, especially in industry. In fact, when you are working towards a common goal where delivering is a key aspect, things may evolve very quickly and a really open mindset can be helpful.”
What were the skills you already had as a researcher that helped you with your current career and what skills did you need to learn?
“Sometimes we have skills that we forget we have, and it is really important to remind ourselves. I started learning and practicing quality standards in academia and so my attention to detail was already good when I moved to industry. That has helped me amalgamate my way of working with the team.
Skills like creative thinking are really helpful too.
Also, I found that academia provides us with the ability and will to learn, and both of these are extremely valuable in a company as well.”
What/who gave you the confidence to transition from academia to industry and how did you get to your current position?
“When I started having a better idea of what it means to work in industry, it really helped me feel more confident in taking the step. Understanding what may have been requested and needed, helped me self-assess as to whether I could see myself doing it. Having an idea of whether you can tick a box, or how well you can deliver something, and what you can offer have been really important.
GeneFirst attracted my attention some time ago. I met the Chief Operations Officer and one of the principal scientists by chance at scientific events… and I talked with them, which really helped. Speaking to people that work in the place that you may want to join is really important, even if it's not an interview.
Part of networking involves having an instinctive feeling about a person or group of people, because these could be the people you end up working with every day.
Not to forget that it is also about timing. As mentioned, GeneFirst was testing its product in the context of a precision medicine project, which I am passionate about, and was actively helping with COVID testing solutions as well. I thought: “this is going to be a really interesting place. A lot of things are going to happen and I want to be there.”
Can you list a few aspects (mindset, skills and competencies) you have observed in yourself after participating in the p2i online course, in terms of innovator/entrepreneurial mindset & skills?
“Different elements of the course helped me to think outside of my usual box. I found all the teaching about the market really helpful. I learnt how important the market is, and how it's crucial to have a product that can exist on this market. Another teaching I found helpful was the lesson on assessing how ready your technology is - the TRL - because you need to understand where you are, and what you are still missing to get to where you want to be.
I particularly enjoyed the business case part and how to evaluate an idea as a potential opportunity. Whenever I have an idea now, I try to think of it as a business case and I put together enough information to make a strong enough case to present it.”
How have these skills helped you in your career in industry?
“Well, for instance, focusing when pitching. Before presenting I consider: “If I had only one minute to speak, what would I say? How can I make this minute useful?”
You can apply it to a lot of different things. It can be about pitching yourself, or an idea. If you are efficient with your pitch you can avoid wasting someone else's time.
Also, in industry we have to navigate business conversations. Someone will come out with a sentence about the market, and at least being able to follow the conversation is really important. Obviously, a person will learn this language eventually because in industry you'll be surrounded by those conversations. However, having a starting point that helps understand what people are saying is way better. So the course really helped me be able to follow the business conversations from the outset.”
What do you consider as key messages or takeaways from the p2i course that have stuck with you?
“Being an entrepreneur or trying to do something new is possible. It obviously sounds difficult in the beginning, but with some support, study and learning, it can be done. If you have a passion for your idea, start learning about it because with some effort and support, you might be able to do it.”
Would you recommend engaging in entrepreneurial activities to other early career researchers? Can you explain why?
“Yes, definitely, I think it's important for different reasons.
Entrepreneurial activities are something that, perhaps, not all early career researchers have the chance to experience. The way I see it, is that trying to explore the world outside of academia can enrich our experience, so I find it a good use of time.
All the tools that we have, and all the items/software that we use, exist because someone developed them and someone put them on the market. It's something that is happening continuously and it's good to understand how it works.
Starting by having curiosity and engaging with opportunities, can give an understanding of whether it is for an individual or not. Maybe you will like it and keep engaging, or maybe you won't. But in any case, if you have a collaboration or even just a conversation with someone that works in industry, that will help you to understand what their needs are, which may in turn help you work better.”
What are the top skills would you encourage an entrepreneurial postdoc to develop, regardless of their career path?
“I think technical skills, plus critical and objective thinking are very important.
Communication is crucial as well; if we are not able to explain our idea, it's going to be way more difficult to have it recognized as important by other people.
The last thing is to be ready to network. For some people I think it comes more naturally than for others, but there are tools that can help. It can be anywhere. Obviously there are networking events that help, but even day-to-day, it's really important to be open to speak with people.”
Is there anything you would have done differently in your career trajectory - in hindsight?
“Well, this is a very difficult question because we never know what could have been.
Probably, I would have focused more on things beyond technical skills, and given myself the time to enjoy it.
Maybe it would have been good to enroll in a mentorship program early on. Sometimes your career just progresses, but I think it is also good to have someone with relevant experiences who you can help you with different perspectives.”
Is there any advice/parting pearls of wisdom you would give to postdocs who want to explore or want to pursue a non-academic career?
“Let’s see… working at a high standard is important whichever career path someone wants to pursue. Find your own motivation. Gather the information that can help you understand if it's right for you; learn about it, make sure you have a genuine reason to do it and reflect on what fulfills you.
Enjoy the journey. If you don't have a genuine interest, you probably won’t learn what you hope to. Try to see yourself in that position, take your time to really think it through and make it your own decision.”
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