Kathy Brendza

Sr. Research Scientist II, Gilead Sciences

Kathy Brendza

Gilead Sciences, Inc.

Sr. Research Scientist II, Head of Mass Spectrometry and Imaging Core Facilities

What was your career path and what is your lab currently focused on?

I started my undergrad as pre-med. In my 3rd year, a friend mentioned the senior research program at University of Illinois. I found a mentor and began my senior thesis research. It was a great experience and I decided to go to graduate school. I attended Indiana University and did my PhD in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. After graduate studies, my husband and I did Postdoctoral studies at WashU School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. Upon completion of my postdoc, I joined a start up company (Divergence, purchased by Monsanto in 2011) and created a Biochemistry Program at the company. In 2006, my husband had a job offer in CA, so we moved with our family and I found my job at Gilead. I am currently a Sr Research Scientist II and head of the Mass Spec and Imaging Core Facilities. My lab is focused on questions generally surrounding HIV, HBV, ImmuneOnc, Fibrosis, and Inflammation. We try to leverage our specialized skill sets to help answer biological and mechanistic questions.

How is the daily dynamic of an industry lab different from an academic setting?

I would say that the daily dynamic of the lab is comparable. The feel of the lab environment is not necessarily different. It is the focus that is different. In academia, there is latitude to examine interesting biology and side questions that arise during a study. In an industrial lab, the deadlines are tight and the research is focused on driving medicines to the clinic. If there are side questions that are interesting, often we need to outsource or partner to complete those studies. There is not as much latitude for exploratory studies. Having said that, this really depends on the company, resources, and cash flow. For example, whereas at Gilead we tend to stay focused on sending molecules to the clinic, there are other companies that have very strong clinical programs and robust revenues that afford them the opportunity to perform more exploratory science.

As a graduate student or postdoc, how did you decide to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals? What did you look for in a job?

When I was a graduate student, I chose a project that was interesting, but allowed me to learn general skills. I wanted to have an expansive "tool kit" of expertise that would allow me latitude to pursue either career path (academia or industry). As a post doc, I was not sure if I wanted to have my own research program, so I worked on questions that would allow me: 1) to publish and 2) to gain general knowledge and skills that would be applicable universally to research programs. At the end of my postdoc, I decided that I wanted to go into industrial research and had an opportunity with friends at a startup company. Honestly, at that point, I was looking for a job, and wasn't particularly discriminating.

When reviewing job applications, what stands out to you? What are common mistakes applicants should avoid?

I like when people are honest about their skill set and experience and do not exaggerate their actual experience level. I also tend to look for the "square peg" for the "round hole". I like to look for people that bring in skills we do not currently possess, but can also learn and grow in the position. For consideration, care in your presentation of yourself (no typos, uniform font, concise description of experience) is important. It is always classy to send thank you notes after interviewing and not all candidates do that.

Reflecting on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

For me, no. I think that it is the odd and twisted path and wealth of experience that contributed to who I am as a person and a scientist. Am I a CEO? No. But I am a good scientist, a parent of 3 kids, a successful manager and mentor, and I am considered a leader in my organization. That isn't too bad at all!