‘Advice to young scientists’ – from Gabriel Vargas, Neuro Central Expert Panelist


Neuro Central Expert Panel member Gabriel Vargas (Amgen, San Francisco, CA, USA) offers his advice to young scientists. Gabriel has previously held posts at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF; CA, USA) and Roche (CA, USA and Switzerland), and is now Executive Medical Director and Neuroscience Therapeutic Area Head, Early Development at Amgen in San Francisco. His research at UCSF centered around membrane trafficking of GPCRs, in particular dopamine receptors, as well as clinical work with the schizophrenia patient population and the creation of a prodromal schizophrenia research clinic. At Roche, Gabriel was Head of the biomarker group, working on biomarkers for a variety of psychiatric disorders.
Since joining Amgen, Gabriel has been working on the early development of neuroscience compounds, mainly focused on migraine, neurodegenerative and pain disorders. His group is also interested in mobile health approaches to drug development and clinical models.
I trained with a vision to be a triple threat (clinical work, research and teaching) and saw a tenure track position as the culmination of my training. However, I eventually came to the conclusion that based on my interests, an industry position made more sense. These decisions are of course immensely specific to your circumstances and interests.

In my case, since my training was as a physician scientist, I wanted to do translational research, and while it can certainly be done in academia and there are many examples of people doing beautiful work in this realm, for my specific interests I felt industry was a better choice.

However, whether you are looking to be in academia or industry, there are similar skill sets that are important.

Good interpersonal skills and an ability to communicate are essential to further your career. Take advantage of any training that expands your skills in this arena.

The ability to effectively communicate your research can have a very positive effect early on in your career as you present your work at large academic meetings. In industry, the only time senior people will see you in action is when you are presenting in front of governing boards – showing command of the science with good presentation skills is essential. In particular, make sure your presentation is easy to follow, well-illustrated by slides and the presentation itself is articulate and well thought out.

In written communication, take to heart the immortal words of William Strunk in the original edition of The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” This applies to email, longer writing and power point presentations. The ability to make succinct points in email is very important in the modern world where this form of communication is essential. I have worked with many brilliant scientists who could not communicate their ideas succinctly and this proved to be a serious handicap for them.

Take advantage of any training in presentation skills, any opportunities to present in journal clubs, lab meetings and conferences. If presentation is a difficult arena than additional practice with toastmasters, for example, is encouraged.

Good interpersonal skills is essential is industry where just about everything is accomplished within the context of large teams. Teamwork is fundamental and thus the ability to work with others is paramount. In academia, usually the work is not done in large teams but the ability to network with other scientists at conferences is also important as one looks for collaborators, post-doctoral positions and then for your first faculty position. If you find networking difficult – don’t worry, almost everyone except for the most extroverted find it challenging at times. You may have to force yourself to do it. Fortunately many of these networking events happen within the context of a reception and one of the world’s oldest psychotropics (in small amounts) can aid as a social lubricant.As someone who is involved in designing and interpreting clinical trials, I find that a good understanding of biostatistics is very important. A good piece of advice is to take a rigorous statistical class early on in your career. This will help you later on in science no matter what you do. In addition, nowadays we are living in a world of big data and understanding data analysis is important in many fields of science.

Mentoring is essential. Find a mentor early on in your career who can help you and give you guidance. I was lucky in that both my PHD and post-doctoral advisors had my best interests at heart. Unfortunately this is not always the case. In these situations try to find another mentor who may be motivated to mentor younger scientists.

Finally, I would give the advice to not be risk averse. Follow your real interests. There was a recent article in Science relaying the grim numbers of post docs getting tenure track positions in academia. However, if academia is where you want to be don’t be discouraged by the funding situation, the small number of tenure track positions and the difficulties of getting that dream job. Alternatively, if you have decided that industry is the choice for you don’t be afraid of letting your PI know for fear they may be disappointed. It is your life to lead and there is exciting science to be done!

Best of luck.