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September 26, 2002

SCIENCE 2002: Harvesting the fruit of your Ph.D.: Life after academia

"You can have it all. You can have a well-adjusted family and be a successful scientist. There is no limit to what you can do if you believe in yourself."

This optimistic viewpoint permeated a pep talk by Carol A. Nacy to once and future scientists at the final session of last week's Science 2002 – Synergy in Science symposium. Nacy lectured on career decision strategies in the biotechnology era, offering advice to job-seekers trying to determine which career path — industry versus academe — to pursue.

A self-described "serial entrepreneur," Nacy has made the transitions from academic scientist to business scientist to businessperson, with a lot of overlap in between.

The mother of five children, Nacy described her life as having "nothing in order, nothing done nicely, everything upside-downs and inside-outs. But I've always thought chance favors the person going with the flow."

Nacy's career highlights include more than 20 years' teaching and doing research in microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases; helping to build two biotech companies from scratch, and advising start-up companies on both scientific and business matters.

She holds patents for identification of infection by flow cytometry and methods for treating cancer and other diseases.

Nacy has taught at Howard University, Catholic University and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

She has been chief scientific officer of Anergen, chief scientific officer and executive vice president of EntreMed and drug development consultant to Oncogene Sciences. She is the founder and CEO of Sequella, Inc., Rockville, Maryland.

Interspersing maxims with the story of her own winding career, Nacy told the audience of her overriding personal philosophy: "What is good for our science career is good for the institution, be it academe, government or industry," she said.

She tested that philosophy out in the early 1990s: Reflecting on her years in the academic environment at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, she concluded that her biggest accomplishment there was curing mice of the infectious diseases she gave them. She asked herself, Was that enough to satisfy her desire to do some good for humanity?

The answer was no for Nacy, and during what she called a mid-life crisis she even toyed with going to law school. That idea waned, and then through networking within scientific professional societies, she was asked to go into industry and help build a company.

"You might say I escaped or defected from academe. But really, I am an academic; I'm a businessperson with an academic perspective."

The company she was asked to help establish was EntreMed, a biotech firm with emphasis on blood and blood vessels research.

"The founders were practically oriented," she said. "We thought we were academics, but what you find is that one's reputation changes after going into industry: You are said to have 'left science.' "But I felt that, in building a company from scratch, we would try to be as academic as possible and, in fact, there's a lot of science being done in industry, especially in today's biotech companies."

In other words, scientist and businessperson need not be mutually exclusive.

"Academics are where good ideas come from. Scientists now ask us [at EntreMed] for help making companies out of their good ideas, or creating a for-profit business for a non-profit professional society. The key is to commit to a product to help mankind," Nacy said.

But her career path took another twist when she found that she missed working in infectious disease at about the same time she discovered that tuberculosis, under control if not completely eradicated in the United States, was running rampant in the rest of the world.

"I found out that one-third of the world — 2 billion people — have TB. It causes 2 million-3 million deaths per year; there are 8 million-10 million new cases annually; it's the No. 1 killer of AIDS patients; it's the No. 1 killer of women, and it accounts for 26 percent of preventable deaths worldwide.

"I thought, 'Where have I been? Why don't I know this?' There's some disconnect here."

So in 1997 she founded Sequella, Inc., with TB as the firm's first target. The goal was to develop diagnostics tools, drugs and vaccines for the disease.

"Five years later, we've acquired front-line technologies, expanded our patient portfolio, and developed diagnostics [tools for testing for TB] and three vaccines," she said.

Nacy cautioned that entrepreneurship is not risk-free. "Ninety percent of companies die in the first year; of the 10 percent left, 90 percent of those change their focus in the second year. You have to look at the bigger picture. How do you get a product? Because the resources are there."

To woo financial backing, Nacy advised:

* Refer to "applied research" when appealing to investors; but use "basic research" when appealing to grant reviewers.

* Never say no, and never take no for an answer. "You have to continue being aggressive until you find the answer you want."

* Plan ahead of time. "The Army is a great reactor; we could have a vaccine already for every one of the biological threats we face if we had planned ahead instead of reacting."

* Build your CV. Publishing papers, joining professional societies, securing grants, editing journals all contribute to one's reputation, she said.

Finally, she advised, "Be happy with your work — at least 51 percent of the time."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 3

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