Spotlight on . . . Heena Khatter, 2019 Vertex Fellow
What inspired your application to the Vertex Fellows program?
While pursuing my post-doctorate, I was thinking about options where I could see myself working in the future. I was keen on moving to the pharmaceutical industry but a bit hesitant to jump into a full-time position, as I had no idea about research in industry. I came across the Vertex Fellows program that promised exactly what I was looking for — short term, program focused with insight into drug discovery pipeline in industry, research-driven but not limited to it and a plan for career mentorship. I knew I had to apply for it!
What was the experience like?
The Fellows program was absolutely amazing. The week-long ‘bootcamp’ was a perfect start to the Fellows program that set the fast pace and also gave us a perspective about Vertex and research in drug discovery. We had talks and discussions with leaders at Vertex on different areas of research, development, manufacturing, commercial and business. Honestly, it seemed a bit overwhelming in the beginning with the workload and presentations. But over the year, I was embedded in the project teams; it was absolutely thrilling to work, network and learn from some of the most experienced people in the field.
What was your area of focus?
My research area was structural biology, more specifically, cryo-electron microscopy. This method has had a huge impact in drug discovery in the recent years, and I was fortunate to join Vertex where I could contribute with my scientific expertise in the field.
What did you hope to accomplish from the program?
My hope was to understand the drug discovery pipeline in the industry, and not be limited by my area of research expertise, but rather explore opportunities beyond that. There is so much beyond research that goes into getting a drug to market and this program gave me insights into every aspect.
I feel I could make the most from the program with the guidance from the VIER (Vertex Innovation and External Research) team and career mentors who were a huge support at every step, be it directing the research, preparing talks or deciding what to pursue next.
How does the Vertex Fellows program differ from other similar programs you have completed – post-docs, fellowships or business school internships?
This is a great mix of ‘hands-on’ bench research and pedagogical learning on various aspects of pharmaceutical industry as well as soft skills. Research here is a team sport where people from multiple disciplines come together to tackle a protein target, unlike in postdoc where the laboratory is working towards a focused understanding of the target (structural/cellular/molecular) and one often misses the bigger picture. Even an industry postdoc is open-research that is publication-driven. Contrary to that, as a Fellow I worked on proprietary Vertex projects contributing to bringing science closer to patients. Also, mentoring that I received as a Fellow is rather unique, where I could speak to pretty much anyone in the company about the in-house research, my career aspirations and learn from some prominent leaders in the field.
What’s next for you?
I enjoyed working at Vertex so much that I will be staying on in the biotech industry, as a research scientist at Vertex. It is a versatile environment that fosters creativity, collaboration, innovation and brings out the best in you.