Mark Bazett graduated from the Department of Human Genetics in 2015. After finishing his PhD, Mark transitioned into industry, leading preclinical drug development in small biotech companies. He currently works as the Director of Preclinical Development at Bold Therapeutics.
Q: What made you first interested in doing a PhD in Human Genetics?
I did my undergraduate at the University of Victoria and we had a co-op program there. I was actually going the organometallics biochemistry route—that was my original plan. But one of the co-op positions was with Dr. Christina Haston at McGill University, who later became my PhD supervisor. We were studying cystic fibrosis using a variety of models, and I found the research really interesting. I therefore decided to stay, starting out as a Master’s student and then doing the transition into the PhD program. If you had asked me in undergrad if I wanted to study human genetics, I wouldn’t have known at the time, but I really liked what I was doing with Dr. Haston and my interest just evolved over the years.
Q: So what kind of support did you receive during your PhD?
My PhD work was completed at the Meakins-Christie Laboratories, which probably only had 30 graduate students, but it was a really good community—I made a number of lifelong friends there. I was also very lucky that some of my closest friends from undergrad and high school all did PhDs—some at McGill, some at UBC—so I had a great group of PhD friends that went through the same challenges and supported each other.
Q: What do you do day-to-day in your current positions?
I’m currently working with a company called Bold Therapeutics. We’re an oncology-based drug development company, which is currently in Phase 1b clinical trials. I was brought in to run the preclinical side of the company, so I work on determining how we can best utilize our drugs and understand how they work. I’m primarily running a collaborative network of contract research organizations and academic collaborators so my day-to-day is working with these scientists to advance our programs. I also work daily with the other departments, including clinical, manufacturing, and corporate to integrate the preclinical science into the overall company.
Q: What has been the biggest experience for you after graduation?
Shifting from hands-on laboratory work to what I’m doing now, which is running these preclinical drug development programs. I’m not in the lab at all now—I’m doing science, but I’m running programs instead. That has been the biggest experience for me in the last 10 years and I’m really enjoying it.
Q: How did you transition from academia into industry?
I kind of fell into it a little bit. A friend sent me a job application for a small company in Vancouver. They were doing some really innovative science that they were translating into the clinic. I was originally brought in as a postdoc to work in their labs. However, about three months into that, I realized that I wasn’t really enjoying working in the lab. There was an opportunity in the company to move into a leadership role where I was able to actually run the programs instead of being in the lab. That was something I found myself liking more than the day-to-day of conducting experiments. So for me, I transitioned more into a management-type position.
I really liked my PhD, but doing the lab work—that was something I realized I didn’t enjoy until after I left my PhD. The transition into industry helped me realize what my strengths are and what I enjoy doing.
There are lots of really interesting opportunities in industry. I specifically like working in smaller biotech companies. It’s fast-paced and exciting, and you get to learn about different aspects of the company and drug development. That’s something that a lot of people don’t consider when leaving their PhDs—that there are other options beyond working in a lab.
Q: What is it like working in a small biotech company?
Small biotech is very fast-paced and it’s always changing, so you have to be adaptable. The expression we always use is that we “wear multiple hats”, meaning that we have a wide range of different responsibilities. The smallest biotech I’ve worked at only had three people, so on the same day, I might be pitching the company to investors, meeting with manufacturers, and running experiments. As companies grow, you start having specialized co-workers who run the different departments, but you’re still going to be involved. I love being part of all the different aspects of what makes a small biotech company run and using my science background to move the projects forward.
Q: How has the PhD helped you in your current job?
I use the kind of knowledge that I learned in my PhD all the time. Specifically for my PhD, I brought together a bunch of different areas of life sciences. So the ability to read literature and pull it in—that skillset, you’re going to use your entire life. Right now, maybe it has nothing to do with anything I did in my PhD from a science standpoint but it’s the understanding of how to consolidate information, and create hypotheses, and drive big projects forward. And the other thing you learn in a PhD is how to actually manage a project from a scientific perspective—just from record-keeping to hypothesis-generating. It doesn’t matter what your scientific project is—all of that is completely transferable.
Q: Is there anything that you wish you knew before you started your PhD?
I think there are a number of opportunities that I’ve probably missed over the years. For example, I had some data sitting on my desk for six months that I could have published but it got scooped and it was just a missed opportunity. So always take advantage of opportunities as they come, whether that’s working with a collaborator, taking extra courses that the university has to offer, like project management courses. I didn’t really look into those when I was doing my PhD but that’s one thing I wished I had done.
I would also encourage people to look beyond the standard pathway of doing a PhD, then doing a postdoc, then becoming a P.I. That had been my plan for many years. Looking beyond that can open your eyes to what else there is in science, especially in drug development. For example, clinical trial management or manufacturing can be really interesting career paths, but you don’t really see them unless you’re working specifically in that area during your PhD. Many scientists can easily transition into those fields. Take advantage of opportunities to learn and explore what’s out there and be open to transitioning into a new field—there’s a lot more out there than just being a basic scientist after your PhD.
Q: Lastly, is there anything else you would like to add?
One last piece of advice I would give anyone, no matter where they are, is to push themselves into new experiences and opportunities, and to not get too comfortable in one setting. If you are extending your PhD for a few more years doing the exact same thing, you’re not learning more—maybe you’re getting more publications out—but the learning comes from moving to a new lab or a new postdoc, or even moving into industry. Getting out of that comfort zone and onto the next stage is where your growth happens and where the learning happens.
Many thanks to Mark for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.