Posted by: Nicole Ferraro, MS. Laure Frésard, PhD has had an eventful transition from academia to industry. She returned from visiting family in France just before shelter-in-place orders began in California and spent only days in the office before going remote. Thankfully, the months since have gone smoothly in her new role as a Computational Biologist at Invitae, a medical genetic testing company in San Francisco. We spoke recently about her journey from PhD to postdoc to industry scientist.
Dr. Frésard’s team at Invitae is currently working on machine learning models to predict pathogenicity for variants of unknown significance and integrating gene expression data into diagnosis pipelines. Her passion for this work began years ago, when learning about Mendel’s experiments first sparked her interest in genetics (raise your hand if you relate). She went on to receive a PhD in molecular genetics from Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France in 2014, advised by Frédérique Pitel, PhD. Her thesis focused on using RNA-sequencing data to detect genomic imprinting in birds – a phenomenon whereby the expression of some genes is dependent on whether they were inherited from the mother or father. This has been observed in mammals and plants but not in birds, and there were several hypotheses as to why, though it was still an open question. She ultimately did not find evidence of imprinting, and says this was “challenging in a way, because then I had to publish negative results, which is a good entry into research, how to prove something does not exist … and I had an awesome mentor that got me through that.”
Having really enjoyed working with RNA-sequencing data, Dr. Frésard next looked for a postdoctoral position where she could continue working with this data while learning something new. She found a perfect opportunity halfway across the world in the lab of Stephen Montgomery, PhD, at Stanford University. Here, she still focused on analyzing RNA-sequencing data, but now from humans, specifically those with undiagnosed rare diseases. She worked on comparing gene expression in patients to the same data from healthy controls to identify expression signatures that can pinpoint genes potentially causing that patient’s disease. Asked about any difficulties moving from birds to humans, she says it “was easier in a way because humans are way more annotated, so while chicken is very much annotated as well, it’s nothing compared to all the data we have gathered on humans. [The biggest change] was to go from a few dozen chickens to thousands of potential samples to analyze. But that was a small challenge compared to all the great data that was there – it was super exciting.” She described the switch from animal to human genetics as shifting motivation from working to improve our food systems to impacting healthcare. That mission-focused drive has continued to inform her career decisions.
With her postdoc ending in January 2020 and looking to stay in the Bay Area, Dr. Frésard entered the job market knowing she wanted to continue doing research. While looking into industry research positions, she says “one thing that helped me triage was their mission. I think that believing in the mission of the company that you want to join is super important.” This led her to Invitae, where she began as a Computational Biologist in March 2020. She was excited by the opportunity to continue doing patient-centered work and saw that the employees at Invitae genuinely believed in its mission of prioritizing patients, citing as one example the drive to scale up testing capabilities in order to lower prices and increase access.
Her advice for others looking to enter the job market from academia is to talk to as many people as possible. She did this through a combination of cold emailing, reaching out to networks, and LinkedIn. She also advises taking risks while you’re wrapping up, always trusting your gut and not waiting too long to start looking for your next move, as it’s worth it to take the time to explore many different options and hear varied perspectives. Her day-to-day now is not too different from academic research but features more regular interaction with teammates and moves at a faster pace. She enjoys being able to see the impact of her research in a shorter time frame, which was one of the main reasons she gravitated towards industry positions. Overall, she described her experience in industry research as like a PhD, but without the pressure to publish and the defense, a ringing endorsement in my book.