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Derrick McCarthy, PhD

Graduation Year: 2013
Advisor: Miller, Stephen
Current Position: Associate Director of Platform Enhancements, TCR2 Therapeutics

Derrick McCarthy is an Illinois native, growing up in Waukegan, IL, a suburb just 45 minutes north of Chicago.  He received his undergraduate degree in microbiology with a minor in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  After working in industry, he entered the DGP (then called the IGP) in 2006 and joined the lab of Dr. Stephen Miller in Microbiology-Immunology.

What made you want to go to graduate school?

During my time as an undergraduate, I was actually a pre-med student. Having endured many hospitalizations with sickle cell disease (my identical twin brother and I are both homozygous recessive), I’ve always been interested in medicine for as long as I can remember. Sometime in my junior year of undergrad, I started looking for an opportunity to pursue undergraduate research as a requirement for applying to medical school.  I joined a laboratory in the entomology department that studied invasive species of insects. That following summer, I was invited to participate in the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program at UIUC. This program probably had the greatest impact on my decision to pursue a PhD. In addition to summer research, the student participants received a summer-long immersion course designed to familiarize us with the process of applying to a graduate program and attaining a PhD. My experience also involved visiting multiple graduate schools, attending conferences, and having the opportunity to speak with graduate-level students and professors who spoke candidly about their experiences in academia. The director and associate director of our chapter was Dr. Michael Jeffries (then also the national director of the McNair Scholars program) and Dr. Priscilla Fortier, respectively. I found them both to be very motivating, in addition to being a great resource for us students. Additionally, some of the courses that I took my senior year made me realize that I was more interested in how microbes interacted with the body and evaded host responses.

What brought you to Northwestern and the IGP/DGP?

I should note that, having become accustomed to the unpredictable nature of sickle cell disease, I didn’t like to make long-term plans out of fear of disappointment. Thus, pursuing a terminal degree and the post-graduate training seemed like too long of an investment, and I decided to look for an opportunity in industry. I worked during the interim between undergrad and grad school as contractor at Abbott Laboratories in Hepatitis R&D, where I met many people who were enthusiastic about academic research and encouraged me to go back to school and obtain a PhD. My girlfriend also encouraged me to dream bigger and apply to grad school while she was in the process of applying to med school. Finally, I remember visiting UIUC and bumping into Dr. Jeffries who encouraged me to apply to Northwestern. He had a colleague at NU who remembered me from a talk that he gave at UIUC during my senior year. I was mainly interested in microbial pathogenesis and specifically in the work of Richard Longnecker and Pat Spears. As luck would have it, my girlfriend was accepted to a med school program in Chicago, so things lined up perfectly.

What did you study in graduate school?

I performed my first rotation in a cytomegalovirus laboratory hoping to gain experience that I could then use to impress Dr. Longnecker, but then I’d heard about some work that Dr. Stephen Miller was doing in which autoimmunity could be induced by infection with a viral pathogen. This seemed like the perfect project for me to sink my teeth into host-pathogen interactions, and I performed my second rotation in Dr. Miller’s lab.  I worked on T cell differentiation with Dr. Joe Podojil, who in many ways became a second mentor to me and many of the graduate students in that lab. This experience set me down the path as an immunologist. I felt that Steve’s lab was one in which I would be given the opportunity to grow as an independent scientist and a place where there was no shortage of resources, either financially or intellectually. During my time there, I worked on the mechanisms of peripheral immune tolerance induction in animal models transplant rejection and autoimmunity. As I was nearing completion of my graduate studies, a postdoc by the name of Aaron Martin passed me a collaboration that he had initiated with Lonnie Shea’s lab in bioengineering that involved inducing tolerance with biodegradable, antigen-conjugated nanoparticles. I found the process of interdepartmental collaboration to be incredibly engaging, and I was able to work with a really talented and bright graduate student in the Shea lab. I ended up delaying the completion of my PhD by more than a year, as this quickly became the focus of my research. In fact, I stayed on for an additional two years after completing my PhD because I found this interdepartmental collaboration so engaging and rewarding.

Did you do a postdoc? What did you study?

I decided to start looking for a postdoc about a year out from completing my doctoral studies. I was pretty certain that I didn’t want to have my own lab, but at the same time, there were a few things that I wanted to resolve as far as my development as a scientist was concerned. My thinking was that the graduate program was where you learn the fundamentals of how to pursue a scientific question using the scientific method, and the postdoc is an opportunity to further develop and refine those methods. By the time that I joined Steve’s lab, it was beginning to transition towards a more translational approach. This was very rewarding, but I also wanted to study immunology (and specifically autoimmunity) from a basic standpoint. Additionally, since my PhD was performed in a large laboratory setting, I wanted to have the experience of working in a smaller setting, which I thought would be best for refining my approach. Finally, I’d also hoped to come back after some additional training to work with the company that Steve co-founded and help develop the nanoparticle technology for use in the clinic.

I interviewed at a few labs in Chicago, and a few in New York, but ultimately I ended up at Washington University in St. Louis. The three years that I spent there was a very rich experience for me, and I learned and grew a lot. Instead of studying T cells in the context of immune tolerance, I studied myeloid cells and their role in autoimmune diabetes. There were some personal sacrifices that I had to make and difficult moments that I endured being so far from my loved ones, but in hindsight, it was well worth it. The Pathology department at WashU felt so collaborative and open, and the lab that I joined was doing fascinating work. I still think very fondly of the time that I spent in St. Louis, the relationships that I formed there and my postdoc advisor. He was someone that had a reputation for being difficult, but I found him to be very generous and someone that I came to really admire.

What was your first job outside of academic research, and how did you get it?

My first job outside of academic research (following my postdoc) was at a biotech company in Boston, and how I arrived there is where my story really takes a turn. Allow me to explain.

About 4 months after I joined my postdoc lab, one of the people in my postdoc lab invited me to church with her. I’ve always believed in God but, by that point, I could no longer find value in organized religion; in fact, I was thoroughly against it. Nonetheless, I agreed to go because I thought that there was something very special about this person and the experiences that she described to me were quite peculiar. When my wife and I arrived at her church, we didn’t see anything terribly different than what we had observed in other churches before, but at the end of the service, something amazing happened. At that moment, we were asked if we wanted to receive prophecy, and we said sure, let’s give it a try. There, as I received prophecy, God began to speak with me intimately about my past, my present, my future.  He began to comfort me concerning some of the feelings that I held in my heart (fears, desires, ambitions).  He began to speak to me about the suffering that I’d endured as a consequence of my illness.  He began to make promises to me that I was going to have a family, that I was going to have a career, that I would be traveling overseas with all expenses paid for, and many other things concerning myself and my family. To be honest, I left feeling surprised, elated and a little confused at the experience because it was impossible for me to explain. As a scientist, I had no rational explanation for how that experience could have occurred or how those intimate things in my heart could have been revealed to me as they were in that moment. Some of those promises that I received where particularly comforting because they spoke to those doubts that I had because of my condition. I’ve been attending this church since, and in every city that I’ve visited where this church is present, I simply arrive there unannounced where no one even knows my name; but there I receive prophecy and it is the same God sharing with me the same promises, speaking of my experiences, replying to those questions or prayers that I made to him in private moments, comforting me and exhorting me to do better. When I visited London for a conference in 2018, it was the same. Many of those promises have already been fulfilled (both for me and my family), and there are undoubtedly millions of people around the world that have shared this unique experience in the 60 countries where our church (CGMJCI) is present. This is something that anyone can experience, no matter what their background is or what their religious beliefs are. If they desire it, they will have that experience and it is up to them to draw their own conclusions. I know of many scientists and former atheists who regularly attend our congregations.

I mention this because in late 2015, while visiting the church in Queens (New York), I received a prophecy that I would be contacted about a job offer from someone that I hadn’t heard from in a long time who would remember me. I wouldn’t have to do anything for it, because that person would be contacting me, and I should take it. This was comforting to me because even though I enjoyed my postdoc work, academia was not an endgoal for me and I was contemplating what would come next. This promise eventually came to fruition in 2017 with someone that I collaborated with while at Northwestern University. I hadn’t spoken to this person since the beginning of 2015, but she emailed me with the job description, asking if I knew of anyone who would be good for the position, and then texted me before I was able to reply to her email. The opportunity that was presented to me was to work on immune tolerance induction in the context of autoimmunity, something that I felt very comfortable working on in light of my research experiences. She thought I would be a good candidate for it and offered to put me in touch with the hiring manager (who was also a former NU Alumni), and everything progressed from there. To be quite honest, I didn’t think that I’d take the position since my wife was still contractually bound to Chicago for another year, but I was greatly impressed by what I saw when I interviewed, and the spirit of collaboration that I felt there. My wife was also supportive because she also knew of the promise that I had received and believed that it was a good opportunity for me as well. The position that I filled was for a Scientist, but I was hired as a Senior Scientist, and I remained in that role for little over a year. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to transition from academia to industry, and I’m still very grateful for my experiences there at my first job.

What is your current position? Please describe the big picture of your position as well as a bit about the day-to-day.

I am currently an associate director in Early Discovery and Innovation at TCR2 Therapeutics where I manage a team of 8 people and growing. I report directly to the Vice President of Early Discovery, who is in charge of building out our pipeline, generating novel ideas, and developing enhancements for our product. My team is in charge of generating proof of concept for those ideas and enhancements. My position involves a fair amount of brainstorming and creativity to meet some of the challenges involved with developing projects from an idea to proof of concept, coordinating efforts and resources available to my team, managing deadlines and multiple priorities, as well as cross-team collaborations. I also communicate results to my VP and present results to the company in both small and large group settings. I usually start my day by looking at my agenda, preparing for meetings, and trying to identify downtime that I can use to plan.  I spend a lot of time in meetings—one-on-one meetings with my team members, going over results and coming up with plans to keep the various projects moving forward so that we can achieve our goals. Meeting deadlines are very important, and requires that I am constantly keeping abreast on my team’s data—keeping track of new developments and trying to anticipate problems, so that we can make well informed decisions about future directions. I’m fortunate that I work with a really great team of scientists, because having talent makes this aspect of the job easier. Making sure that everyone on the team is content involves managing agendas and making sure that you are providing (or allowing) opportunities for development and advancement. My manager is someone who has a tremendous capacity for managing these various responsibilities, and I look to him and my colleagues as a source of inspiration. 

As industry science is very much a collaborative effort, I also attend interdepartmental program meetings where people from various teams come together and discuss progress on high priority goals. This is something that I really enjoy. Finally, I still do some experiments, but I’m finding that is becoming less efficient, so that is taking a back seat to my other responsibilities at this point. 

How did Northwestern prepare you for your current career?

I believe that my experiences in my PhD lab were very formative in preparing me for my current role. Steve granted us a great deal of freedom to grow and develop as scientists, and that opportunity to explore and be creative has benefited me at multiple steps in my career. Additionally, the interdepartmental collaborations, the conferences that I was able to attend, and the confidence that was afforded me by allowing me to manage multiple projects as a grad student have all helped to prepare me for my career.

What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?

One of the things that I never quite grasped in grad school or even during my postdoc was how important it is to maintain and expand your network. In Boston biotech, networking is a huge deal. There are colleagues of mine that literally spend at least one day a week networking and maintaining old contacts for the sake of maintaining job opportunities. I don’t think that I’ve seen it on quite the same scale in the Midwest.  It’s not that you have to be local to find a job in Boston, but it definitely helps to have local contacts.  I would also encourage students to seek out opportunities for collaborations and teamwork in academia.  Being able to effectively work in a team is really important in industry.  Another skill that is good to develop is managing people in addition to projects, so if you have the chance to manage a technician or undergraduates, I would take it.

Do you have any final advice for graduate students?

The scientific world is so much bigger than you can imagine in academia. In the right culture, in the right environment, biotech has the potential to be so much more rewarding than anything in academic science. One of the arguments that convinced me to leave my postdoc for my first job was presented to me by the Chief Financial Officer during my interview at my first company. He told me that the project that I was working on as a postdoc was undoubtedly important, but that it was small because it only required 1 person to work on it. In industry, you know that an idea is big because it has the potential to change the entire direction of a team or a department, or even the company. That is what a big idea does; that is how much impact your work can have in industry. That conversation had a huge impact on my decision and has stuck with me for a very long time.


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