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Our article ‘Career area: project management’ includes further links and resources related to this career area.
A life science careers blog for early career researchers
This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.
In this blog interview, we talk with EMBL alumna Anna Bartosik who applies her scientific background to a career in project management in the biotech sector. Anna kindly talked us through her career path, and her thoughts on the skills required to become a great project manager.
Links to further resources related to project management careers can be found at the end of the article.
You are currently a senior project manager at a biotech company in Poland. Could you first tell us a little about how you made the initial transition from academia to a senior scientist role in industry?
After my PhD at EMBL I wanted to continue my adventure with science in academia, so I applied for a postdoc position at IIMCB (International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology) in Warsaw. However, two years later, I started to look around for a scientific position in a biotech company. At the same time, I was interested in moving from Warsaw to Kraków, my home town, and that’s how I joined Selvita (now Ryvu Tx) as a senior scientist in biology. Shortly after joining, I was given the opportunity to have the position of team leader in biology, leading a small group of 3-4 scientists.
I had a good background in molecular biology and basic research, but I wanted to move to more translational research, especially to tumour biology. I thought that first of all, it would be good to start as a scientist in a biotech company in order to understand how a biotech works: how this really looks like from the inside. First of all, I had to learn a lot of techniques and a lot of skills, also in biology to be able to run proper experiments. This experience of around four years as a senior scientist and team leader gave me the opportunity to get familiar with the field and to learn how to manage people, in a small group of course. Secondly, by participating in the meetings that were concerning the whole drug discovery process of the projects we worked on, it also gave me a feeling for how the whole process of drug discovery worked. Not only the biology part. This was really a deep dive inside, and a steep learning curve.
How much was the overlap between the science you did in academia and what you did in industry?
I did my PhD in yeast biology – budding yeast to be precise. This is one of the simplest model organisms, and a good base to start with. But in order to work in the cancer biology field, I had to learn how to work with human cell lines. I took the first steps during my postdoc; this was already a transition from the simple model system like yeast into eukaryotic cells. Then the whole field of cancer cell biology was something I learned already in the company. The molecular biology techniques are very similar to some point in spite of the model you use, all you need is to learn how to upscale them. However, at that time, we witnessed a very rapid change in the techniques available. The famous CRISPR-Cas9 method of genome editing was only just around the corner. Therefore, I had to learn how to apply all these new techniques to our daily work and how to plan experiments properly.
And the position you applied for? Were you a good match, or was there a lot of work to be done to convince them that you could learn this?
During my recruitment, the company was looking for skilled biologists to join several new projects. At that time, the experience I had from academia was just enough. However, from the very beginning, I knew that I will have to learn a lot. Well, I decided to give it a try and see how it goes. I had a chance to work in a team of very talented young people and received a lot of support in the beginning, which for sure was very helpful.
After working as a senior scientist and team leader in discovery biology, your subsequent roles have been in project management. Could you explain a little more about what your responsibilities are as a project manager, and how this differs from the more biology-focused roles?
As a team-leader in biology, I was focused on running experiments for one or two projects. These were defined experiments in a defined field, with the support of 3-4 team members. We were planning the experiments, and running them mostly together – and of course analyzing the data, and planning the next steps. As a project manager, I work closely with the scientific project leader and coordinate the whole drug discovery project. It’s not only biology, but also other functions we have across the company – the chemistry team, legal team but also procurement or business development. I have to communicate with people from all these different functions and ensure they understand each other, although they don’t all have a scientific background… It’s a lot of communication and a lot of meetings. Personally, I think you need to have a scientific background to have this position, as you need to understand very well the drug discovery process. Currently, I rely more on an overview of the whole project – and not a very detailed overview of individual experiments.
You mentioned that your first experience in industry was important for you to understand the entire drug development process. Do you think it is necessary that someone has lab-based industry role first, or is it possible to apply to project management functions – maybe in a more junior position – directly from academia?
I think it very much depends on the size of the company. In a smaller biotech company, in my opinion it’s favourable if you start in the lab and then move into project management. But I expect that in big pharma the project management teams are larger and it is easier to join a team in a more junior position and then acquire the necessary knowledge.
Do you have any tips for scientists who would like to move into industry in general, and project management roles in particular?
First of all, I would recommend thinking about what you really enjoy in your daily work. And secondly, why you want to leave academia. In my case, I wanted to work in a more dynamic field than academic research in several projects at the same time. I appreciate flexibility and a changing environment – although it may be tiring, as it sometimes changes too fast. At the same time, I wanted to participate in research which directly impacts human health and allows me to combine my scientific background with management skills.
Specific to project management, there are lots of certifications you can do out there like the project management professional certification. Have you done such a certification and would you recommend people do it before the move?
I personally learned by doing. I don’t have any certificate and at the moment I don’t plan on acquiring one. From what I learnt about the certificates available on the market, they are not really addressing the issues I am having in my job. They would teach me how to generally run projects, but they are not dedicated to drug discovery projects. These are very specific projects, involving a lot of collaboration with scientists, which is also a very special environment. So, I don’t think this type of professional certificates are necessary in a biotech company. But I can’t say if it wouldn’t be needed or favourable if you applied for a project management position in a big pharma.
You mentioned already some of the skills you need as a project manager – having the overview of the process and being able to communicate with a wide range of people. Are there other skills you need?
For sure you need good attention to detail and great organizational skills. And another one is coordination: putting loose ends together, and making different functions across the company and different teams working on the drug discovery project communicate with each other and know what they are doing. Also, it’s very important to have this ability to look one step ahead, and to be able to recognize the risks that are out there, and that we have to act now before it’s too late in one month.
Finally, it’s all about communication on different levels. On the one side communication internally within the company, but also externally as we present our projects at conferences – we have posters or presentations. You need to be able to explain what your project is about in five minutes to someone completely new to the field, and it must be interesting, because as a company we want to interest people in our projects.
Finally, language skills are also really important.
You are based in Poland: my assumption would be that in a small company you need to be fluent in both Polish and English. Is that right?
We have a lot of co-workers from different countries. People working at our company are based across Europe – and even some working remotely in the US. So, communication at our company is in English. But additional languages are welcome. As many languages as you know, it always helps.
What do you enjoy most about working in project management in industry?
I enjoy the most having an overview of the whole early drug discovery process. The project manager is involved in the project from very early on and supports the project along its path to the preclinical phase.
What’s also great is that every day brings new challenges. Project management focuses on many different areas and very often tasks differ from day to day. At every point we focus on how to improve and speed up the process of discovering new drugs in order to help patients in the end. This is something we keep in front of us: that there are patients waiting for new drugs. If the project is successful, it is very rewarding.
But what is challenging, is that sometimes it doesn’t go well and you need to take a step back and think about what’s going on. It may be frustrating, as you are trying different things and they don’t always work. It’s important to be resilient – not to give up too fast in order to overcome the challenges and move forward.
Sometimes connecting all these loose ends is also challenging because people may not want to communicate with each other. But you have to support them and facilitate ideas exchange as if the communication fails, the project fails.
How much of your time is spent in meetings, how much at the computer planning, and what are the other tasks?
I spent a lot of time in meetings. During the pandemic it was mostly remote, but we are coming back to having as many meetings as possible onsite. This is most of my time: meetings and preparing presentations or reports for different audiences, internal and external. I work a lot with the legal team. We have many subcontractors for services we want to run externally for which we require confidentially agreements and service agreements. This is also something I am responsible for. In a biotech company our most valued asset is intellectual property, therefore we collaborate with patent attorneys and support patenting of our discoveries. A significant part of my work is monitoring what others do in the field: How the competitive environment looks like, what patents are being published, what are new publications, posters and conference presentations on the topic. In drug discovery it is very important to track what’s new in the field and keep up to date.
So, it sounds like you are still close to the science?
Yes. At a biotech company I think it is possible to be in a project management position still close to science, as there is not so much bureaucracy. There still is some – we need to document all the meetings and all the legal work is a lot of work. But it is still very close to science as project manager is a member of scientific project team.
What’s also really interesting from your experience is that you’ve also been active as a science journalist and in science communications. How active are you in that now?
It actually all started at EMBL, with the Science in School magazine. I reached out to Science in School and asked if they needed Polish translations of their articles for schools. They were very open and I could pick several articles and give it a try.
Translations were the first step to improve my writing skills and remind some Polish vocabulary which suffered at that time because I was using only German and English on a daily basis.
I was told by many people that I can explain easily complex matters. That’s why after moving back to Poland I wrote my first article and I just send it to several weekly magazines (Newsweek type) which had popular science sections. One of the editors replied and it’s already ten years since we are working together. Shortly before the covid pandemic I was asked to write a book on the history of medicine for kids. At first I thought I will not manage, since I was always more interested in what’s new in science than how it all started. But then I started digging in the internet and library and I found some really interesting books and I slowly started to have an idea how such a book for kids could look like.
And then I thought, okay I will try to write this book. It was a long progress and very challenging. But this is now published in Poland, Germany, Spain and South Korea with great illustrations from the graphic designer, Asia Gwis; she made this really well. The success of this book for kids is very rewarding.
I’m now getting back into writing articles for the magazines but I still have ideas for other books, so let’s see what happens.
Do you think that’s also influenced your other career – or do you see these as two separate things?
I see it more as a hobby, something more relaxing than work, which allows me to take a step back and look at science from the perspective of “normal people”. During the pandemic it became so obvious that we need scientists to fight virus but also we need to communicate their work in an accessible way, in order to avoid myths and fake news as it was for example in the case of mRNA vaccines. It sounded exotic in the beginning and caused anxiety in the society, which was finally overcome by tedious explanations of experts who had to find common language with people.
And how do you see work life balance between academia and industry?
I think it was harder for me to maintain work life balance in academia. Experiments sometimes take much longer than usual office hours and many unexpected issues may arise during the lab day. Project management is an office based position and mostly it’s measured by the performance, which may allow for some flexibility. It is however important to keep in mind that meetings may also run late or start in the late evenings or early morning due to different time zones. I think that in the end, work life balance is something very individual, which you have to work out for yourself and make the boundaries that should be there. Good organizational skills are also helpful for managing your time efficiently.
Do you think there is anything we did not talk about that is really important?
I think it’s really important to stress that young scientists who completed their PhD have project management skills already as they were managing their scientific project. When I was doing my PhD project at EMBL, I was collaborating with many people, I had my timelines and milestones I had to monitor, and this is somehow similar; it’s just the scale that changes and some more functions are added. Project management in a biotech company is close to science, and the experience and skills you gain running your own project in academia is for sure something you can use later.
EMBL fellows and staff members can contact Anna and other former staff/fellows via the EMBL Alumni Directory. Anna can also be found on LinkedIn.
Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.
Career area information articles
Our article ‘Career area: project management’ includes further links and resources related to this career area.