Schaun Korff, Ph.D.
Schaun Korff, Ph.D.
Dr. Schaun Korff is a Medical Science Liaison in the Pacific Northwest. He received his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from North-West University (South Africa). He earned a Master in Biochemistry and spent two years working in a Pathology lab before going back to school and earning a second Master’s degree (this time in Molecular Pharmacology) from the University of Hertfordshire, England. Korff received his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from North-West University on 2007. After a short period as honorary lecturer at the University of Cape Town, Korff spent the next four years as postdoctoral Fellow at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. His main focus in the Department of Genetics was exploring the utility of DNA repair pathway as therapy in pediatric Medulloblastoma and Glioblastoma. Dr. Korff made the transition to the Pharmaceutical Industry in December 2011. As a ‘now out of shape’ runner his favorite saying is: you can turn your back on a fellow runner… but you can never turn your back on a muffin!”
Conducted, transcribed, and contributed by Brian | April 2013
In this age of distilled information and rapid digestion, how would you describe yourself to our community using simple taglines? From a personal standpoint: Quiet and laidback, responsible, and driven. On a professional level: Scientist. Based on expertise: Biochemist and researcher. I have used these terms to define myself for more than a decade in addition being an MSL (Medical Science Liaison).
Who (or what) inspired you to pursue higher education in academia? I was always curious growing up. I actually grew up on a farm and my brother and I got into all kinds of trouble just by being curious. This inspired me to do research. Even though my parents were not college educated, they always encouraged us to pursue our education and curiosity. In that regard, my parents were a source of inspiration by allowing me to be curious and giving support. This is what got me to where I am today.
Were there any fictional (or nonfictional) characters that inspired you? To be completely honest, growing up, my definition of someone solving problems was MacGyver. I enjoyed his practical approach even though it was not medical science - it was him solving things and getting to the root of whatever he was tackling. There was not a particular icon that I wanted to follow, but I had this urge to basically look at things, understand them, and try to build on that to find answers. Based on the era or age that you grow up in, media can definitely play an important role in one’s chosen profession. For example, the show Monk was on while I was wrapping up my Ph.D. studies. Since a lot of my study was neuroscience related, involving topics such as OCD and depression, it was challenging not to quote lines from Monk in my thesis.
What factors played a role in your choice of research area and mentor(s)? I would say that, like many others in the neuroscience research field, I found the mysteries associated with the brain intriguing. Besides MS (Multiple Sclerosis), there are currently no other neurological disorders that you can cure or, at least, keep under control with medication. Conversely, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease are being studied feverishly to develop treatment options but still have so many unanswered questions. Even back in the late 90’s this is what attracted me to the field - to try and find answers for particular neuroscientific questions. Not that I am shying away from competition in the cancer field, but studying neuroscience seemed like a good career option. Overall, it seemed like field with a lot of opportunities, available man-hours, and research options. That was my main motivation (note that Schaun also has 4 years of research experience in the cancer field studying glioblastoma). In terms of seeking a mentor, I enjoyed the field and the research, but I also had a decent mentor that was really great at teaching me how to write papers and plan out studies. My Ph.D. advisor was really great, but the one that I keep in touch with to this day was my advisor in the UK (whom I worked with on investigating nitric oxide signaling in cancer). He is a great person and mentor. I have a lot of respect for him and still ask his advice on certain things. Even though he is in academia, he has a lot of collaborations with local hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. Still, he is an academic mind - a professor through and through. Notably, I also had the experience of working under a PI that was not necessarily a great mentor, in terms of professional development, but is a great scientist. In this case, I had to look outside of that lab to find someone to mentor me in the aspects of career development and career options. However, he was great at teaching me how to be an exceptional scientist. Do not be afraid to look for mentors outside of your lab door!
Heart attack: The Transition:
Can you recall and share the moment (or events) that led you to make the transition from bench science? I would not say I had a heart attack; it was a slow buildup of cholesterol over a long period of time. It was a gradual process. I enjoyed research, but the one thing that I was continually frustrated with in academia was the slow nature of things. I like things to kick over, and try to achieve goals quickly, and get results. This is exactly what you get in pharmaceutical industry. You set goals, put in a lot of effort in chasing them down, and move on. In academia, we tend to mull things over, put them on the backburner for a while, maybe think about it again, and come back to it. I like the quick results one can generate and see in the pharmaceutical industry. So, that is something I wanted to get away from with respect to academia. However, I wanted to be able to use my scientific background and training, because I am a scientist through and through. As such, I wanted to use my scientific background in my next position.
What resources did you utilize to investigate career options outside of academia and how did you determine medical science liaison was the right choice? Your best resource is people. Not necessarily your mentor, but people in that specific area doing exactly what you are interested in. As a postdoc, set up meetings at a larger conference or society meeting / events (i.e. AACR) with people at companies. If you are interested in medical affairs, I would try to speak with a medical affairs person at the back end of the booth or exhibit. For example, big companies such as Novartis always have a medical person near the booth that you can speak to. What would you recommend for people that normally only attend smaller boutique conferences, such as Gordon Research Conferences? For people that do not normally attend these types of big pharmaceutical conferences try to attend BIO (held in Chicago this year). In my opinion, this would be the number one place to mingle. However, if you do not have the funds or support to go to the meeting I would suggest expanding your network. If you want to be an MSL TALK to an MSL. Increase your network. That is exactly how I got my position – it is all about networking. I had a colleague that moved from research into the pharmaceutical industry. She was appointed as an MSL and we kept in touch. About two years later, I spoke with her and she had a friend that she knew a hiring manager. That is how my CV ended up on his desk. So, expanding your networking is the number one advice on getting into pharmaceutical industry.
What was the job hunt process like? There are a lot of MSL positions out there. Unfortunately, if the recruitment agency is doing recruiting for the pharmaceutical company they are usually looking for 2-5 years experience. If you are a postdoc, or you have no clinical experience this can be an issue. However, this can be dependent on how you frame it or spin it in your resume. Honestly, I spent several weeks on my resume, sent to 3-4 people for feedback, and modified for many different positions wrote 8-10 versions of my resume. That was the first step, get resume in order and out. Next would be, if you are considering an MSL position out of graduate school or postdoc- stay in your therapeutic area or expertise. It will make the transition easier. I stuck within the neuroscience focus. Then, I looked at particular companies and spoke with my network to see if they knew if one person or another or if a position opened up. I would say I spent a total of 6-8 months, spending one hour each day working on networking or resume or looking for positions. However, I knew people that looked for a year or longer and did not find something, or people that looked for a few weeks and found something. Based on my experience about 6-8 months.
Glimmer of hope:
Can you briefly describe and define your position? The MSL position is a field-based extension of the medical affairs department. My job is to support clinicians, bench scientists, and researchers to support their needs. If it is a clinician, I need to support their needs as clinicians and share clinical data. If it is a scientist, I need to make sure that they are up to date with everything going on in the field. If it is research support, I need to aid in their research proposal and help them shift their proposal and work on a budget. Approximately 75% of the job is to communicate scientific, clinical and research information based on the current needs.
Can you describe a ‘day in the life of an MSL? There are typically two types of days. The first is where you are in the field when you are meeting with your key opinion leaders and talking science, answering questions and sharing approved clinical data, or helping with research. The second is the admin days. Pharma is one of the most regulated types of industries out there. You have to make sure all of your interactions are documented and you keep good record. In this day and age of labeled versus unlabeled, you need to make sure all of your interactions are recorded - documenting everything. One of the things I typically do not enjoy is the admin days. There is admin and documentation, and then there is keeping track of your finances and personal expenses. Even though pharma has a big budget and a lot of money, they still stick to a budget. You have to count for everything you spend. You have to document lunches with physicians and report back to federal agencies. You especially have to make sure people in medical affairs are not promoting off label use of products and research. The days you are in the field can be pretty hectic. There is a lot of travel involved; that I do not like. Sometimes you spend a lot of days away from family. In this regard, I am lucky. Travel depends on your territory size and for some MSLs; travel is brutal because the territory is spread between institutions in different states. This can make for a hectic travel schedule. Additionally, you are not in control of your own schedule. Therefore, you have to get in line with support leaders and other physicians. This is one of the things I am not fond of - your schedule depends on their availability. In regards to support for academic scientists – a lot of the research for a specific disease state is typically done at a preclinical level at the universities and institutions. People have animal models or specific cell based systems that they use which can be very attractive to pharma companies. About 60-65% of all R/D for pharmaceutical companies is not done in-house, it is contracted out to scientists that are exploring and following their own career. However, sometimes it just so happens that their research overlaps with a target for a pharmaceutical company. Therefore, they can get funding from pharma. The perk is that it is not as competitive; if you are a PI at university or institution and you want to submit your RO1 it is going to be a very competitive and open field. For example, if you are interested in neuroscience, you will have to compete with someone in immunology. Thus, it is not necessarily an even playing field. Whereas, for a pharmaceutical company, you will only have to compete with someone else in neuroscience. Developing this interaction can also be part of the job of an MSL – to seek out research opportunities (understand what is new and published) and try to reach out to investigators or people who publish data, and discuss their research. My purpose is not to get them hooked and perform research for the company, but sometimes these PIs can be educators and teach people in the company about a specific disease or molecule. So PIs can still function as educators. MSLs can therefore serve as liaisons for a company and interact and recruit bench scientists so they can act as a consultants. MSLs can meet and interact with folks (external customers, board leaders, in-house- medical affairs departments and research departments, but maybe not commercial), but in medical affairs, you have to be on top of all the new scientific breakthroughs and that means bringing in experts from the outside.
What are your top likes and dislikes of your career? Dislikes: Travel, Administrative record keeping, Working around other people’s schedules. Likes: The primary reason why I chose medical affairs is that I still get to talk and think science and answer scientific questions! Pushing research forward and making sure people are informed, especially clinicians. For example, if there is a new product out, they may not be familiar with and may not know the whole side effect profile or mechanism of action. There is a lot of education involved especially for new clinicians out there. Travel can be a pain, but it will also allow you to visit some interesting places. For instance, I don’t think I would have gone to Anchorage (AK). Additionally, you get to see places you do not often see or had planned to see. Pay is good, to be honest. We are used to crummy pay in academia, so a decent pay is good. You also see something you never see in academia – a bonus – especially if your company or division is doing well. Furthermore, things happen quickly and you see results quickly. Notably, in pharma there is a high turnover rate. Luckily the MSL position is not chopped quickly. Usually sales, commercial, and R/D get chopped first if product is nearing due date in terms of patent; however this is not generally the case for MSLs.
Success and Reflection:
Who are you currently inspired by and what motivates you - in what kind of environment do you thrive? My current therapeutic area is MS (Multiple Sclerosis). The people that inspire me are the patients. At our internal medical summits; we typically invite MS patients to share their experience. You get two types of patients, one that is angry and down asking, “Why do I have MS?” However, others that take it head on and are more positive. You can see and appreciate both points of view. I find it comforting and inspiring to know the types of people that I am working for. The environment I thrive in as an organizing official is a well-organized, well planned, and moving forward. Any environment like that allows me to thrive and multitask.
What do you think is the most valuable skill you picked up in graduate school or postdoc and why? The number one skill is organization / planning. In graduate school we are forced to think and plan. As a scientist you must be able to do this. Part of being a scientist is being able to plan and be organized, but you need to take it to the next level. Multi-tasking and handling multiple things at once is extremely important, and something I picked up. This was something that I did not necessarily pick up on my own as a postdoc. I was involved in the local council and eventually moved into a position with the NPA (National Postdoc Association). That exposure to leading committees and teams helped a great deal. Part of the MSL job, internally, deals with many different work streams. A meeting committee, a team within the MSL team typically plans attending a meeting, sets up schedules and works on competitive intelligence, and time frames. An advisory board work team puts together agendas, advisory boards, and planning. So, there are a number of things you can do, but it all boils down to organizing, planning, multitasking and of course having some people skills is also very useful. Being a dictator is not going to get your anywhere. You need to be able to work with people and find common ground. Teamwork and communication is absolutely critical. This is not something you will pick up at the bench. This is definitely something I did not learn in the lab, but mostly through volunteering and outside of the lab as a postdoc. You will need transferrable skills. The 6 competencies for the NPA are very important. One of my bits of advice, and something I had to work on, is if you do not have organizing skills, or if you have a weakness, try to beef it up – it is basically why I became involved in volunteering. Understand where you need to bulk up. I had a colleague at the NPA council who was very proficient at putting seminars together. She did research and eventually decided to move into professional development office. She is currently director of the PDO (Postdoctoral Office) there. She is a scientist and did research, but her love for planning and desire to share take over. A lot of issues related to postdocs are that they are limited by the vision of their mentor and just doing bench research. Thus, if you can combine your transferrable skills with your science, you can increase your chance success.
Would you do anything differently in relation to your preparation for a career and your ultimate decision? Start volunteering earlier. I started volunteering a bit late. However, I would not necessarily change anything in particular. Are you still able to volunteer now? Yes, working with MS there are many events (almost every weekend) and local advocacy chapters (that one can volunteer – walks, raise awareness. I am not necessarily able to take on leadership role or plan events, but mostly get the hands on volunteering experience.
In simple terms, can you define the value of having a Ph.D.? Pursuing a Ph.D. did not change who I am as a person, but there is definite value in going through the process because you develop new skills and strengthen some weakness, and definitely you get exposed to a bigger network. Thus, even if you are doing a Ph.D. just to expand your network, just make sure you are also able to learn how to plan experiments. The value of a Ph.D. is underestimated, for example, some companies say you are overqualified, but you can never be overqualified of transferrable skills. You have to look beyond the degree and see what it is bringing to you beyond just pure qualifications.
Giving back: Go forth!
If you were an academic advisor or career counselor, how would you prepare your students for ‘the real world’? (Sigh) I would say that I am a strong believer in building a strong network. With all of your transferrable skills you must make sure that your students talk to people out in the real world and find out what their likes and dislikes are - the haves and must haves for specific careers. They should talk to people and analyze themselves. Even after you graduate with a Ph.D. you see a huge number of students that still do not go to career development seminars. They are so focused on getting that Ph.D. and then once they have it, they look up and say…what’s next? You must determine your strengths and weaknesses. Plan ahead, it is never too early to start planning and start looking ahead. A great scientist at St. Jude’s said; when he was in high school he was already looking at colleges options. While in college he was looking at postdoc positions. Finally, when he was a postdoc he was already looking at where he wanted to be as a PI. Always plan ahead. The question of where you want to be in 2-5 years - that is a very relevant question. You should always be ready to make that next move if the opportunity presents itself you should and plan to have everything you need. If that opportunity presents itself you need to be ready to pounce.
What advice would you give to a community member interested in becoming an MSL? My advice is not to be afraid to make that jump from academia to the pharmaceutical industry. I was intimated by industry for many years, wondering if that would that is the right move. Just go for it. We all have the qualifications, just put it down on paper, and get it into your resume and make that move!