PNAS: Jennifer Saam, Medical Science Liason

(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of Jennifer Saam, who translates between different departments at a medical diagnostic laboratory. The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their fiuture careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.--post-doc--academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I am a medical science liaison at a medical diagnostic laboratory.

I work in the medical services department and this department maintains the scientific integrity for the company. I answer scientific/medical questions from customers (patients and health care providers) and from other departments (like marketing and sales). I review the scientific literature to see how new research will affect our products. I review materials written in the marketing department to make sure it is scientifically accurate. I present to health care providers about the science behind our tests.

2) What is your science background?

I have a PhD in molecular biology from Princeton University.

I have a masters degree in genetic counseling from the University of Utah.

3) What led you to this job?

I worked with this lab during my training as a genetic counselor and started my job with the company as one of the genetic counselors for the laboratory. My current job draws more on my molecular biology skills as I now cover our personalized medicine products which are not genetic tests.

4) What's your work environment like?

I work in an office. I also travel to scientific meetings and to do presentations for physicians.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Since I work with a lot of different departments at my company, I attend a lot of meeting. Today, I went to a meeting about how we would search the literature for a new product we have coming out. I attended a meeting to plan a clinical trial. I worked on a training slide set to train nurses for a different clinical trial. I also reviewed a slide set that was going to be presented to the vice president of an insurance company to argue for that company to cover our lab's tests. I also went to a training by our informatics department to learn how to use a program that can do queries for our lab's data.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

I use my science background while analyzing the literature, planning clinical trials and considering how data can and should be presented so it is accurate.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Students should develop good analytical skills. Good communication skills are also important. Finally students need to network. The hardest part about getting a job like mine is getting your foot in the door. Once you are there, it is easy to show how valuable you can be to a company. Basic statistics skills are highly valued.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

Analytical skills

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

I think it may be hard to plan a career in science. I think someone should only do a PhD if they love science and want to pursue it for its own sake--as my husband tells all aspiring graduate students, "Are you sure? The pay sucks and science mostly fails." Defending my PhD was the proudest day of my life (and I do have children). I do think science PhD students should take heart--there is so much need for good analytical skills. I know lots of PhD's who are not academic scientists but most of them are still in science and none of them are taxi drivers. I would encourage students to develop communication skills--writing and oral presentations. I did a large number of presentations as a graduate student and it has been very beneficial to me.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

I think the pay for jobs similar to mine is probably in the $60,000-$120,000 range.


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Interesting to hear about somewhat atypical medical science liaison role... diagnostics has a different 'flavor' than pharmaceuticals! It sounds like Jennifer's role is more like a scientific advisor, and involves less field-based work than a drug company MSL would usually be doing.