Elena Brin, PhD
Graduation Year: 2002
Advisor: Leis, Jonathan
Current Position: Chief Scientific Officer, Athae Bio
Elena Brin grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, which is also where she performed her undergraduate work. Elena started her PhD at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and moved to Northwestern when her advisor, Dr. Jonathan Leis, was recruited here. Elena is the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Athae Bio, a biotech startup focused on cancer drug discovery.
What did you study in graduate school?
I investigated the mechanism of retroviral integration in Dr. Leis lab.
Did you do a postdoc? What did you study?
I did an industrial postdoc studying tumor immune evasion and investigated the potential of cytokine gene therapy to overcome it. This was my second job after I graduated; I had a Scientist position in industry right after graduation.
What was your first job outside of academic research, and how did you get it?
I went directly to industry after getting my Ph.D. degree from Northwestern. It was a scientist position in small gene therapy biotech, Biomedica. I applied for it after seeing an ad. It was a case of being at the right place at a right time - they were looking for someone with my skills when I needed a job.
After my graduate advisory committee concluded I've done enough and it was time for me to write my thesis, I decided it was also a good time to start a family (I got married in my early 20s). Being from Europe, I didn't give much thought to how it may affect my job search and had some interesting revelations when the time came. Luckily, Biomedica executives had modern views on family and work and found workarounds when I couldn't travel. The company was an Oxford BioMedica spin off, so most employees came from Europe.
I actually wanted to do a postdoc in Marsha Rosner's lab at University of Chicago. She was the only other person who didn't mind my pregnancy. She was doing some interesting research in oncology that I wanted to pursue. I didn't think she would be interested in someone with my background but applied anyway. She gave me an offer, which meant a lot to me. I am very grateful for it, even though I had to turn it down in the end. My husband lost his job two days before our baby was born, and a postdoctoral salary at the time did not cover basic living expenses in Chicago for a family. I also knew that eventually I wanted to work in industry on drug discovery. I was very fortunate to get that first job even though it didn't last long (the company closed a year later, which was at a tough time for the industry). That first job brought me to San Diego, where I worked with a great team (we stayed connected years later). Their referrals helped me get my next job, where I also worked with some amazing people (a few of them were part of Herceptin discovery team).
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 Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of a biotech start up Athae Bio focused on cancer drug discovery with the help of machine learning. I define our scientific strategy, areas of focus and experimental workflows - in other words, outline what we need to do (big picture) and how to get there (a step-by-step detailed plan). We started as a virtual company, and to carry out experimental work I identify and manage contract research organizations (CROs). On a daily basis, I plan experiments, work with various CROs, and analyze data. Some days I help prepare investor presentations and/or talk to investors. And, of course, I regularly brainstorm with my co-founders.
What other experiences brought you to your current position?
The loss of a dear friend to triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) gave me the courage to start my own company. I was able to champion novel ideas at companies where I worked before, but naturally it was within the constraints of the companies' focus. Sometimes, founding a company is the only way to realize your own vision. I always admired people who were able to start their own ventures, but I didn't think I had the ability to do it myself. Mentioning these thoughts to a friend prompted the question, “Why not?”. My answer was “I am a boring scientist who can handle the science side of things but a startup also requires business acumen”. My friend assured me that I “can totally do it”. I started investigating what it takes to get a company up and running when the friend mentioned earlier got a grim TNBC prognosis. In the process I met my co-founders with complementary skills (machine learning/artificial intelligence and business development), which made it easier to take the leap.
What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?
If you aspire to found a company someday, it may help to find a graduate or a postdoctoral advisor who has similar aspirations or has done it in the past. It might be easier to start a company earlier in your career, while, perhaps, partnering with industry veterans. There has been a noticeable shift in startup funding trends, it seems that primarily academic lab spin offs, technology licensing from academic labs, are gaining the most traction. Pursuing research you are passionate about in a lab of supportive and visionary PI during your graduate or postdoctoral studies can be a great launching pad. If you didn't manage to be in this position, look for opportunities to gain valuable experiences and have a positive attitude.
Do you have any final advice for graduate students?
Try things even if you think you may fail - if you don't try, you are guaranteed not to get it. I didn't have money to pay for graduate school entry exams. I found out about mock exam competitions which pay for 1 or 2 students with the highest scores to take the actual exams. I thought there is a slim chance of being the best or 2nd best among the huge crowd taking the mock exams. But I had nothing to lose, so I tried, and got awards in both competitions which allowed me to take both TOEFL and GRE. I have other experiences trying the seemingly impossible and succeeding, to my own surprise. Of course, you won't prevail every time, but at least you know you've tried; being OK with and learning from a failure helps you grow. It's easier to try new things early in your journey - volunteer, intern, explore various career paths, find the one you like. To quote Forrest Gump “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get”. Make the best of whatever life throws your way. Enjoy your journey!