Dr. Marta Gonzalez-Hernandez earned her B.S. in Chemistry, with a minor in Biology, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in 2005, and then did a post-baccalaureate program at the Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico. She received a Ph.D. in Immunology with an emphasis in Molecular Virology from the University of Michigan in 2012, and started a post-doc in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology that same year. She was then hired in 2013 as a Scientist at the biotech company Rubicon Genomics, Inc. in Ann Arbor, MI which specializes in next generation sequencing library preparation.
Earlier this month Kofi Gyan from The Biotech Review sat down with Marta for an informational interview concerning Rubicon Genomics and the development of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). The interview is edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell me about the career path that led you to your job. Who were your mentors? How did you first become involved with Rubicon Genomics?
As is commonly the case, I entered graduate school unsure of what career path I would follow in the future. I knew I wanted my future career to focus on research but I had no idea whether it would occur within academia, industry, government, or something I had yet to even consider.
Two key events however, caused me to pursue a career in industry. First, by my 3rd year of graduate school I had enjoyed numerous courses at the University of Michigan but discovered that while I was a good –albeit developing grant writer, I was frightened by the idea of actually one day writing grants for a living! It was an unsettling thought to picture myself as a principal investigator and responsible for the livelihood and future of the graduate students and post-docs in my lab. What if I were to lose funding? Living from grant to grant is not something I could see myself doing.
The second key event which motivated me to pursue a career in academia was the diagnosis of my younger sister with Multiple Sclerosis. As my family and I began to come to terms with what this meant for my sister, it occurred to me that very few treatment options existed for this disease in spite of so much research. Great research is published and pursued each and every day but thus far it does not translate very well to new healthcare plans and treatment. As a scientist I wanted the research I conducted to provide an immediate and direct impact in society. Industry presented the clearest path to achieving this goal.
I first became involved with Rubicon Genomics through a career fair. Ann Arbor has a vibrant and budding biotech community; through networking with fellow scientists and other biotech professionals I learned how to distinguish myself and my skill set for a career in industry. I identified Rubicon Genomics to be a great fit for me because of my expertise with molecular biology and Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). Never underestimate the benefit of networking!
What are the duties/functions/responsibilities of your job?
Contrary to popular belief, life as an industry scientist consists of more than just meetings, meetings, and more meetings! I joined Rubicon Genomics as a Scientist I which involved working on a research project as a member of a small team. Since January 2015, I have transitioned to the position of Scientist II where I am now in charge of multiple research projects. My main duties focus on leading team meetings, supervising associate scientists, and training newly hired scientists. Outside of day-to-day operations I go to conferences to network, stay current with the field, and present our research findings. My job is a lot of fun since it is dynamic and flexible; it is a lot of work to manage multiple projects, but everyone has a role to play and they pull their weight, which helps keep things running smoothly.
What is the most rewarding part about your job?
The most rewarding part to my work is two-fold. Personally, the immediate and direct impact on healthcare is a major point of motivation for me. Secondly, I simply enjoy the whole process of taking an idea, testing and developing that idea, and turning it into a marketable product! I enjoyed my experience as a graduate student and as a post-doc, but in academia lots of research doesn’t get translated to impact healthcare. My job with Rubicon Genomics allows me to leverage my skills and expertise as a researcher but with the end result leaving a lasting and positive impact on cancer diagnostic or prenatal diagnostic; for me that is truly rewarding.
What experiences best prepared you for your job?
As a graduate student in the lab of David M. Markovitz, M.D. at the University of Michigan, I was fortunate to be in an environment where I was constantly working and collaborating with not only other scientists, but professionals up and down the biomedical spectrum (i.e. engineers, physicians, computational scientists). All of these diverse interactions led to the development of my communication skills. Learning how to be an effective communicator while in graduate school equipped me with the ability to easily explain science to those outside of my field or even those who are outside of science. At Rubicon Genomics I work with people who have very different backgrounds and varying levels of scientific knowledge but I need to get a point across and make it accessible and understandable to everyone in the room. Having had plenty of experience with this I am very comfortable doing it now, which is usually on a daily basis!
What skills or personal characteristics do you feel contribute most to success in this industry?
Being optimistic, perseverant, and willing to learn new things are personality attributes that really complement the basic scientific technical skills we learn while in school. Industry laboratories really need people that do not shy away from challenges, but rather act proactively to try and overcome them. Being self-sufficient and at the same time willing to collaborate will also help get you far.
For somebody interested in pursuing this career, what would be your advice to best prepare them?
For those interested in a career as an industry scientist, I would highly recommend experience (i.e. classes, internships, or competitions) focused on the process of product development. As a graduate student at U of M I regret missing out on the opportunity to take a course called “The Business of Biology.” The course illustrates how one transitions from having an idea through the whole process of refining, developing, and testing that idea to create a marketable product. Do not overlook any experiences which can provide a perspective on the dynamic developments in the life sciences and health care industry. It is a great benefit to learn how developments in these industries might impact health care. Also, take it as an opportunity to start learning the jargon and acronyms early.
What are some other opportunities in this company/field for scientists besides bench research and technology development?
Product or project management, medical liaison positions, bioinformatics, regulatory QA/QC bio-manufacturing specialists, and bio-production operators are some additional opportunities that are in high demand in biotech companies.
What are the most exciting innovations that you foresee happening in the short-term and long-term future? Will these ideas come from academia or industry?
Both academia and industry come up with great ideas as both are strong incubators for innovation and of course actively benefit from one another. To be honest, most ideas are collaborations which benefit both sides. As for exciting innovations, I foresee major development in studies focused on miRNA and other biologically active small RNAs. In recent years there has been a growing interest trying to understand their role in disease and life, and a shift to develop preventative measures and new diagnostics.
How has this field advanced since you’ve started at Rubicon?
A lot of progress has been made in sequencing down to the single-cell level, as well as in biomarker determination from liquid biopsies or cell-free DNA. It is very exciting to see new technologies move towards less invasive diagnostic procedures with minimal material required, but still providing high depth of information.
What are the biggest challenges NGS diagnostics face?
For the time being, a significant challenge facing NGS diagnostics is the type of samples we require for NGS to work. As a field, our technology is constantly moving towards collecting samples in the least invasive manner as possible (i.e. no biopsies). Currently, harvested material requires tissue which typically has been fixed with formaldehyde or frozen. This method can damage the DNA making it unavailable for testing or induce mutations which skews the diagnostic testing. Rather, we want to only require something as small as a single drop of blood, which we could then use, for example, to distinguish any cancer present in a patient. This is a challenging task not only due to the limited amount of material but also because a lot of other background DNA is present in such samples which would negatively impact the diagnostic testing. As a field we need to design better sample collection technologies to overcome that issue.
Will NGS revolutionize the current model of healthcare by shifting it to preventative instead of curative? Or do you think the utility of NGS will be limited to directing treatment decisions?
Absolutely, NGS technology is evolving such that soon with a single drop of blood we can sequence a patient’s genome, and begin analyzing that data the same day. This type of robust diagnostic testing will allow physicians to detect mutations and abnormalities much earlier and with high accuracy. This information will be an influential tool and valuable resource for the future of healthcare and biomedical research.