Jonathan Rosenblum, Ph.D.
VP of Research: ActivX Biosciences
Q: What was your career path?
A: It started with needing a job for spending money in college. I was a straight chemistry major and the first paying job I could find was in the pathology department of the medical school. I didn't know what pathology was. But aside from having money to pay me, the lab was run by a great protein chemist and was working on a problem I could understand: what are the chemical changes in Alzheimer's patients' brains that lead to dementia? After realizing that biological problems could be addressed with purely chemical tools, I looked for areas of research where my chemistry interests could be focused on clear biological problems. When I graduated college in 1991, a main such area was in enzyme engineering, a field that was just recognized by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (though my thesis advisor was rudely dissed by the Nobel Committee, IMHO). Anyway, I spent grad school doing a bit of synthetic chemistry and a bunch of molecular biology and biochemistry, trying to make antibodies do the work of enzymes, and trying to make phage do the work of the immune system. After my PhD, I decided to focus. Straddling the chemistry/biology line is a good way to learn a lot without really knowing anything. So I did a postdoc in a pure cell biology lab. It was a great experience and I really suggest students take a detour from their comfort zones. Up until my postdoc I assumed I'd find an academic job, but all in all I really didn't think too far into the future. Luckily, as I was applying for academic jobs, one of my closest friends from grad school told me he was founding a company. As I soured on academic jobs (too many were in places I didn't want to live and at universities I never would have wanted to attend), I started to seriously consider the biotech world that most of my peers (at least in grad school) laughed at. So these things came together and I took a job at a months old startup as one of the original scientists. And I'm still there 17 years later.
Q: What experiences throughout your career development best prepared you to obtain and succeed in your current role?
A: Well, to obtain my current role, I had to find myself in a community of scholars who would be essential components of my lifelong network. Silly me, I thought the most important scholars would be my advisors, but at least for getting my "real job" the key was a fellow student. I think there's a lesson there. To be able to distinguish myself at ActivX, I had to lean on the pillars of my training. Whereas I'd been frustrated in grad school when my chemistry friends saw me as a biologist and my biology friends saw me as a chemist, now I could advance the company's goals (and my own) by bridging these groups. We were established as a chemical proteomics company and matured into a small molecule drug-discovery company, ultimately being acquired by a mid-sized Japanese company. The people who I've seen do the best are those who can rely on a solid basis of expertise, but also contribute deeply in diverse functional areas. It's incredibly important to interact with contributors as projects move along, and as a supervisor, I really need to be able to guide biologists and chemists at key points in the process.
Q: Describe a typical day as the VP of Research. What do you spend the majority of your time doing?
A: We're a wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese company. That means that I have colleagues who are working when I'm home with my wife and kids. My days often begin with a barrage of emails from Japan that need to be read and a smaller number that need to be responded to. And often, days end with videoconferences with these same Japanese colleagues, whose days are just getting started! What I tell my kids is that I help scientists design experiments, then help them interpret them. My primary responsibilities are to oversee target identification and validation, high throughput screening and screening to support medicinal chemistry. Secondary responsibilities include interacting with chemistry and later stage development groups to push our compounds into the clinic. So on a typical day I have lots of discussions, most with people working at the bench, about what they're doing, what they should be doing, could be doing... I'm not a huge meeting fan, so I prefer to have these discussions casually in my office or walking around lab. Aside from all of the typical day-to-day, I have to write plenty of reports and make plenty of presentations to keep colleagues up to date with where we are and where we're going. I'm also constantly reading literature to keep up-to-date on new drug discovery methods, new drug targets, and status of competing projects. Less frequently are the big stakes things-I've been to the FDA once to represent preclinical biology at the end of a Phase 2 study, and I've been to the JP Morgan meeting once to meet with potential partners for a compound about to enter the clinic.
Q: Reflecting on your career, what would you have done differently?
A: I would have gotten an MD. I can't actually imagine having done it, but I can very much imagine giving this advice to my kids. Having an MD/PhD gives so much extra flexibility to what you can do when you're just starting out. I spent 5 years in grad school and 4 years as a postdoc. When I started grad school I thought doing 7 or 8 years for an MD/PhD was unthinkable. But for less combined time than typical grad school, postdoc combos, an MD/PhD easily doubles the career options.
Q: In your opinion, how useful has computational modeling approaches (docking, etc.) been in early drug discovery stages? Do you think these techniques will be utilized alongside chemical library screens even more in the future?
A: Our parent company has a modeling group and we have used docking/modeling to try to rationalize compound behavior and propose new compounds to synthesize. I'm optimistic for the future, but so far, I haven't been a part of a project that has succeeded because of key computational insight.