Dr. Rachel Leibman graduated from CAMB (Microbiology, Virology, and Parasitology) in 2017 after completing her training in Dr. Jim Riley’s laboratory. After two years in her current position as a Clinical Scientist, she is excited to share her experience with current students, and tell us how CAMB graduates are undoubtedly qualified for this translational-focused field.
Rachel works for Stemcentrx, an oncology biotech startup acquired by AbbVie, a global pharmaceutical company and spin-off of Abbott Laboratories. As a Clinical Scientist, she supports clinical trials and clinical program development. Rachel describes herself as the right-hand woman to the Medical Director (MD degree) or Scientific Director (PhD or PharmD degree), the clinical leads within the company who are in charge of designing and overseeing clinical trials. During study start-up, her roles include helping to develop and write clinical protocols and informed consent forms, and contributing to regulatory documents like Investigator’s Brochures, which summarize the available data and guidelines about a product or drug. Rachel also participates in regulatory responses to the FDA and other analogous international agencies. Once a study starts, her roles shift to training doctors and staff at the different participating trial sites on their clinical protocols, and analyzing the data generated. She then prepares presentations regarding trends in safety and efficacy for internal use, study doctors, and other stakeholders. Rachel also performs “data cleaning” to track individual subjects’ clinical trial data and ensure that it is entered properly. Once a trial is over, she assists in writing study publications, including journal manuscripts, and the final clinical study report required by government agencies. Rachel also attends conferences pertinent to the diseases that she is working on.
Rachel knew early on in her graduate career that she was interested in translational research, and her thesis project on designing CAR T-cells for HIV-1, within the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI), supported this goal. While training, she volunteered part-time and learned about clinical development jobs within the CCI and Penn. Over the 6 months as a volunteer, Rachel helped write Investigational New Drug reports containing initial trial proposals and pre-clinical information for FDA approval. Additionally, Rachel learned of Institutional Review Board (IRB) experience opportunities through a friend in the ITMAT Certificate Program. Rachel sat on an IRB for 2 years, where she reviewed proposed and ongoing clinical trials to judge the benefit-risk profile, and clarity and transparency of the language for patients. These extracurricular experiences were critical additions to her clinical skillset.
While applying for jobs, Rachel broadly searched for various position titles related to her experience (Clinical Trial Manager, Clinical Science Manager, Clinical Trial Scientist, etc…) as companies tend to use different terms for very similar positions. Initially, she felt that the jobs for advanced degree candidates required more clinical trial experience than she had to offer. However, after searching via Google, LinkedIn, and individual company websites, Rachel secured a phone interview with AbbVie, was flown out for an in-person interview, and offered the position, all within a few weeks.
Rachel believes her background in data analysis, ability to absorb complex information, and attention to detail have helped her excel greatly. In addition, the frequent presentations in graduate school prepared her for the presentations she now makes for study doctors and executives. She also cites her background in immunology and molecular biology as a foundation for her understanding of Stemcentrx’s immune-based biologics, and for her fruitful interactions with pre-clinical and lab teams. Other transferrable skills that Rachel highlights include the ability to read scientific and medical journals about diseases, drug markets, and clinical issues, and the ability to work and communicate with multidisciplinary teams when managing projects. Rachel emphasizes that any clinical expertise can give you an edge when combined with your research background during the job search. She advises CAMB students interested in this field to get as much clinical experience as possible by sitting on an IRB, collaborating with anyone who does pre-clinical or clinical research, and volunteering to work with regulatory documents. She also suggests joining a clinical team at Penn as a part-time volunteer or after graduate school to work as a Clinical Research Coordinator, Clinical Research Associate, or Clinical Data Manager.
Overall, Rachel enjoys her job and encourages other PhDs to explore this relatively unknown career path. While the hours can sometimes be intense when meeting deadlines or working with an international team, she typically works a regular schedule, is able to work remotely, and is paid well. After working as a Clinical Scientist for two years, Rachel feels that CAMB PhDs can absolutely qualify for this position if they work hard and learn the skills required for the job.