An interview with Professional in Residence Erin C. Dueber: Trying new things and finding joy in being surprised

Erin Dueber, Ph.D., is a Senior Principal Scientist in the Early Discovery Biochemistry Department at Genentech. Dueber is joining the QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence (PIR) program on December 13 and 14. UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Lab graduate students and postdocs may register for Dueber’s PIR events here. Dueber spoke with graduate student Samvardhini Sridharan about her science career — from her childhood in Alaska to her current role at Genentech — and how being unafraid to try things played a fundamental role along the way.

Samvardhini Sridharan: What was your career trajectory? Were you always interested in science?

Erin Dueber: I grew up in Alaska, so I always had an appreciation for the natural world, but I didn’t become interested in science until later in high school, when we started learning more about things at the molecular level. Even then, my love for science didn’t really ignite until I had the opportunity to do research.

The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, my chemistry teacher insisted that I apply for an NSF undergraduate research internship program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I got one of the two spots offered to local high school students and that summer, I did biochemistry research. I was hooked and thought, “this is fantastic!” Until that point, science was just memorizing a lot of facts and concepts, but my internship really opened my eyes to having a foundation from which you can then ask questions that no one knows the answer to yet.

I just knew that I wanted to do more, so the internship helped focus me in terms of my undergraduate degree. I knew that I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college for the size and that I probably wanted to stay in the Northern part of the country for culture shock alone.  That really helped me narrow in on the school that I eventually attended: Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. They had a merit-based scholarship to do research called Partners in Scholarship.  Students received scholarship funds, partnered with a faculty member in their freshman year, and started doing research right away. I also spent every summer doing research, and it was definitely what I enjoyed. I then went to UCSF in the Biophysics program, did a Ph.D. in protein folding, and learned many biophysical techniques. From there, I wanted to expand my toolkit, so I went to Berkeley as a Miller Postdoctoral Fellow to do X-ray crystallography.

SS: Did you always want to pursue a career in industry?

ED: No. While I was at Berkeley, I figured out what I wanted to do just by process of elimination. I’m a big proponent of trying things and seeing if I like them or not — and weeding out the things I don’t like as a way to hone in on what my interests are. I find that a lot more useful than saying, “what interests me the most.”

In both graduate school and postdoc, I thought that academia might not be a great fit for me. I have a lot of things that interest me, and I liked variety in my research. I’d also participated in grant writing and wasn’t a huge fan of the process — not necessarily the writing per se, but the feedback loop after. A lot of things were pointing to academia not being the right place for me. But I had never really thought about industry before. And I’ll be quite frank — when I was at UCSF and UC Berkeley, it seemed like it was taboo to be interested in industry at all. It was always thought of as a second-tier career, where one wasn’t as serious a scientist — so I didn’t learn anything about it. But I knew some former classmates that had gone to industry, and the more I learned, the more I thought, “this might be something that interests me.”

I started going on BioSpace to get a sense of how often do things that interest me come up — and the first day I went on the site was the day that I saw the Genentech job posting! It was for a biophysicist who was interested in protein-protein interactions. It was very vague, but it also very much matched my general interests and skillset. There seemed to be growth opportunities and variety in the position, so I applied, and the rest is history! I’ve been here almost 14 years, and it is the perfect niche for me.

SS: How did you learn more about careers in industry?

ED: I think there’s a lot of opportunities that I know of now but didn’t know of back then. Genentech has a strong postdoc program, as well as, an internship program, and I feel like PIs today are much more amenable to their graduate students taking twelve weeks to go do an internship. While we still call these experiences an exploration of “alternative careers,” they are, in fact, the majority of what Ph.D. students end up doing after graduation. Culturally there has been much of a change, and people are more open-minded in allowing students to explore those ideas.

When I was a postdoc, I had to do it based on informational interviews — talking to former classmates who had gone into industry and learning more. And when I interviewed with Genentech, it just felt right. It felt very collaborative — people were excited to talk about ideas. I felt right at home.

I also knew that I just had to try it. I’ve learned that it’s best to just try and learn. Even if you learn that it is not what you want, it helps you focus more on finding somewhere you’re really going to thrive. And nowadays, there’s so many startups — there’s so much money in biotech. It’s a really great time to take those risks, try new things, and be okay with change.

SS: What is your role in Genentech? How did you grow in your role, and what does a typical day look like?

ED: Currently, I am a Senior Principal Scientist and Principal Investigator at Genentech, where I lead my own laboratory. I have three postdocs and two highly skilled Scientific Researchers working for me. Primarily, my lab does “Early Discovery” research. We study how proteins communicate and try to get a basic understanding of signaling pathways and how signaling might go awry in disease states.

It was just me and one direct report when I first started. In my experience, you can grow your lab more slowly in industry than in academia, and labs tend to stay fairly small. In the beginning, I was doing much of the benchwork, and as I started growing in my role, I began to spend more time in the office and in meetings than at the bench. It was a nice and gradual transition where I started out doing the things I was trained to do and was very confident doing as opposed to having an instant lab to manage. Genentech provided me with a lot of training on how to be a good manager, so when more of those skills were demanded of me, I was equipped to do that. As a PI, there’s a lot of meetings, project teams, and 1:1s with direct reports on their projects. But, I still have the luxury of getting an experiment into my schedule if I want to!

SS: How did your experiences in graduate school prepare you for your current career?

ED: At UCSF, I got a strong foundation in biophysical methods, learned how to ask questions, and how to set up experiments — to have the right controls and be rigorous in my science so that I would always learn something. But I was working on prokaryotic organisms in my graduate and postdoc work — so it was a big change moving to human proteins. There was definitely a learning curve there!

Besides learning about how to do good science, I also learned how to be unafraid to learn new techniques and just follow the science. Being able to follow the research where it takes you and being adaptive is critical. I think this is true for all science, but in particular in industry, because we often work on a wider variety of projects.

And, of course, anyone who goes to graduate school learns how to be resilient. I think most people that are in graduate school have been successful in their academic life, so it can be jarring to fail. Failure helps you learn to be more adaptable than if everything just works — so as painful as it can be, it tells you a lot about yourself and helps with your resilience and adaptability.

SS: How are research and mentorship different in industry versus academia?

ED: In many ways, the research is similar because of where I am in Genentech as a basic science researcher in Early Discovery. I do feel in some ways that I have more freedom than I would in academia — I am not beholden to a grant and have to work on the things I said I was going to work on. If I have a crazy idea, as long as my boss is okay with it, I can go off on a tangent and try something and not have to worry about using resources to do it! So, in that sense, I have more freedom to pivot things. The flip side of that is that sometimes I get moved by leadership to something new before I was ready. That hasn’t happened very often, but it is part of the reality.

I don’t see it being very different in industry in terms of mentoring. I think mentoring is a huge part of any successful scientific community.  Having benefitted from having great mentors, both official and unofficial, I feel very strongly motivated to reach back and provide that as well.

One thing that is different is that the Scientific Researchers tend to stay for a very long time. Industry doesn’t see the same turnover as you do in an academic setting, where you bring in new people and are always training. Here, I build long-term relationships where we have a lot of trust, and I can delegate tasks. As a result, it’s a different type of interaction. Mentoring is more about keeping my direct reports engaged and encouraging them in their long-term career aspirations instead of developing a few select skills and sending them out into the world.

SS: What drives your science and research program?

ED: My curiosity is what drives me. I’ve always wanted to stay engaged and say that I was interested in what I was doing! I want to be able to remain curious and open to new ideas and take joy in being surprised when things don’t work out the way we thought. It usually leads to interesting things.

SS: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in industry research?

ED: If you think you might be interested in something, find some way to experience it! It might be hard while you are in graduate school to dive deep into something else — but if you can do an internship or volunteer, then you can figure out whether you like something or not.

Another thing I didn’t learn until my current job was how to take feedback — which is a really powerful skill. It’s hard to get negative feedback. I think we automatically get defensive and don’t really listen — but that’s part of industry research. Being more receptive and learning from feedback has helped me grow as a scientist and a person.

Even if you collaborate, your Ph.D. is more of an individualistic endeavor. But drug discovery is not — you cannot do it alone! You succeed or fail as a team. So, if research in industry is something that interests you, try working on a team on a bigger collaboration and see whether you like it or not.

And of course, try things and stay open! Use your network. Use the alumni network to reach out to former students and get informational interviews. If you don’t think research is for you, there are people that have gone on to do other things — find out about their experiences! Networking should be about learning about other people and sharing what you’re really interested in. And if you can build a network based on those kinds of interactions, you’re going to be able to learn! And when it comes time to actually get a job, it’s also going to be extremely helpful.

Erin Dueber received her Ph.D. in Biophysics from UCSF and trained as a Miller postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. She joined Genentech as a Scientist in 2008 and is currently a Senior Principal Scientist in the Early Discovery Biochemistry Department. Dr. Dueber’s lab uses a combination of biochemical, biophysical, and structural methods to investigate how proteins function in normal and disease biology. Her research usually takes a reductionist approach, utilizing purified components to study the detailed molecular mechanisms of proteins and complexes, which are then put into the context of the more complex cellular environment through close collaboration with expert biologists.

Samvardhini Sridharan is a Ph.D. student in Molecular and Cell Biology in Dr. Peter Sudmant’s lab, where her research focuses on the impact of structural variation on mutation load in human populations. She is passionate about science communication and recently participated in QB3-Berkeley’s Science Writing for the Public workshop. Samvardhini is also a writer, blogger, and editor for the Berkeley Science Review.