Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ken Miller

Kenneth Miller Returns to Mellon Institute for Alumni Talk

Kenneth Miller (Ph.D. ’95) had his own Back to the Future moment by returning to Mellon Institute to deliver a Biological Sciences Alumni Talk and offer insights to current graduate students on his career trajectory from graduate school to the biotech industry. During his visit, Dr. Miller reconnected with old mentors and saw the changes to both Mellon and Oakland that had taken place since his graduate school days. After receiving his Ph.D., Dr. Miller completed an academic post-doc and then an industrial post-doc at Bristol-Myers Squibb. His passion for teaching during graduate school helped him to obtain a position as an application scientist at Biacore, where he presented technology and helped train scientists to use the company’s products. Dr. Miller is currently a senior scientist at MedImmune, where he leads analytical teams in biopharmaceutical development. In addition to telling us about his work at MedImmune, Dr. Miller was kind enough answer to questions from a group of graduate students about working in the biotech industry, which are summarized below.

(Questions and responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.) 

Question: How did having both an academic and an industrial post-doc influence your career?

Kenneth Miller: The academic post-doc expanded my breadth of knowledge into topics that still interest me today, including biology of trypanosomes and other parasites.  The industrial post-doc gave me first-hand knowledge of how science works in an industrial setting.  This experience also allowed me to think outside of the box and learn how to develop new collaborations.

Q: How is entry into industry from an academic background different today than it was when you started during the early stages of the biotech industry?

KM: Much of the innovation in science today takes place in an academic setting, therefore, collaborations between academia and industry are much more common today than they had been in the past.  Previously, transitioning to industry after graduate school had been viewed as an alternative approach to staying in academia, however this career trajectory is now more common and accepted.

Q:  Can you describe the industrial post-doc? Is industrial post-doc necessary to be hired into an industrial position?

KM: MedImmune has a post-doc program in which postdocs are appointed to a maximum term of 3 years.  The main focus of the program is to enable post-docs to build research experience and boost their publication record to position them well for careers in academia or industry.  It is not intended to be a way to gain a full-time position at MedImmune.  An academic post-doc can definitely help you get hired in industry, especially if you are able to build connections with groups in industry during an academic post-doc.

Q: After completing a Ph.D., how should we approach searching for a job at a biotech company?  What types of positions can we expect to be qualified for in the biotech industry and what skill sets do you look for in potential candidates?

KM: In addition to technical skills, Ph.D.’s have the ability to quickly learn new techniques, as well as having the breadth of knowledge and ‘intellectual horsepower’, which are valued in the biotech industry.  Additionally, potential candidates should demonstrate that they can handle multiple projects and that they are able to work in a collaborative environment by having partnered with other labs.  A recent Ph.D. with no previous industry experience typically enters a company like MedImmune at a ‘Scientist I’ level, where they are expected to work on several projects, for example, supporting characterization of molecules.  However, becoming a serious job candidate is difficult without having previously made connections to people within the company through networking, LinkedIn, etc.  Another great way to make connections in industry is to meet and interact with company representatives at scientific meetings. 

Q: In addition to R&D departments, where else can we look for potential positions in the biotech industry?

KM: Several common career paths outside of industry include patent law or scientific writing/editing for magazines and scholarly journals, for example.  Within industry, we have groups of people who work in science submission management (responsible for submitting applications to regulatory agencies) and regulatory affairs.  If you’re interested in business, getting an MBA will help you break into careers in business development and management.

Q: What are some of the major differences you have experienced between industrial and academic research?

KM: In industry, we typically work on multiple projects in pre-clinical development at one time, and in order to accomplish this, it requires good management and organization skills.  While companies want their scientists to publish in high-impact journals, applications to regulatory agencies are even more important.  The main focus of the work is to develop products and get them into clinical trials.  Additionally, intellectual freedom varies in industry.  People working in commercial operations groups have less flexibility than those working on a product in early-stage clinical trials (Phase I or Phase II).  Working in the pre-clinical phase offers the most opportunities for thinking outside of the box.  The culture of an R&D lab has similar pressures to what you have experienced in grad school, in that you will probably be expected to spend a lot of time in the lab.  However, companies like MedImmune are recognizing the need for work-life balance, which they are addressing using a range of approaches.  For example, companies generally have more conference calls and other virtual meetings, thus saving travel time.

Dr. Miller concluded his visit by presenting a seminar on the general workflow and process of analytical characterization of biopharmaceuticals prior to human clinical trials. His talk was focused on antibody drug conjugates, which allow for specific delivery of cytotoxic agents via receptor targeting on cancer cells. Dr. Miller stressed the amount of testing and collaborative efforts required to develop these drugs into marketable products. As members of an academic biology department, we are not frequently exposed to the inner workings of the biotech industry. This alumni visit provided the entire department, and especially the graduate students, with new perspectives on industrial science coming directly from someone who had previously been in our shoes.

By: Karen Kormuth

Our department takes great pride in celebrating the successes of our alumni. For more information, please feel free to contact Shoba Subramanian, Ph.D. (