Rebecca Bauer has a B.A. degree in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania and conducted her doctoral research with Dr. Ilona Jaspers in respiratory immunotoxicology. Her research at UNC delved into how asthma modifies airway epithelial cell innate immune responses to influenza virus and air pollutants using primary human epithelial cells. After graduating in 2014, Rebecca completed a post-doc at Stanford University and is now a Scientist at Genentech in San Francisco. She has received numerous awards for her research at UNC, including the UNC Chapel Hill Impact Award that honors research of exceptional benefit to the public health of North Carolina.
What is your story? How did you get interested in toxicology?
Around junior year in undergrad at UPenn, I was in the midst of deciding what I wanted to do, floating between research or medicine. I took a class called Urban Asthma Epidemic, a seminar class where they brought in a variety of speakers on the topic of asthma. They brought in a toxicologist to speak for one of the lectures and that particularly intrigued me. That was the first time I had heard about toxicology and I began looking into it more. Since I had been doing research in cystic fibrosis, I was really curious about how air pollution could influence lung function. So, I chose to go to grad school at UNC primarily because of their strong air pollution research.
How did you set up your postdoc?
During grad school, I had heard a PI speak about a cool technique called CyTOF at a seminar hosted at the EPA. It is essentially a combination of mass spectrometry and flow cytometry. Instead of detection antibodies for flow cytometry being conjugated to fluorophores, they are attached to metals and then your read-out is based on the masses. There is no need to worry about spectral overlap and you are really only limited by the number of metals. This means that you can measure up to 40-50 parameters on a single cell!
I was really interested in CyTOF! I heard her speak at a few other conferences before emailing her about doing a post-doc in her lab. During my two years postdoc-ing with her, I was in charge of running a twin study investigating the impact of secondhand smoke exposure on asthma. Our participants were twins who had different exposures, or for instance, one twin has asthma and one does not. Two goals of our study were: 1. To better understand the role of gene-environment interactions in asthma and 2. To determine how secondhand smoke exposure affects asthmatics differently than healthy individuals. Specifically, we were asking questions like what kind of inflammation is present in asthmatics as determined by the ratios of particular immune cell types, like eosinophils to neutrophils. We were also very interested in T-cells.
Now what do you do?
My current title is a Scientist in Biomarkers Development at Genentech. As a biomarker scientist, I work to identify and develop biomarkers that we can measure in our clinical trials to prove the drug is hitting the target (pharmacodynamics), to test the mechanism of action hypothesis, and to show efficacy in study participants with the disease. Our work starts in the pre-clinical studies where we work with the Research scientists to identify a biomarker strategy, and continues through Phase 3 clinical studies as we work with a team of Development scientists who plan, conduct, and analyze results from the clinical trials.
How was the transition?
I know many people shudder at the word, but “networking” was essential for my transition, in combination with a little luck. During my postdoc, I was teaching a course and one of the invited speakers was a Scientist at Genentech. At the time, I was becoming more interested in careers in the pharmaceutical industry, so I asked him if he would be willing to meet and talk about his career and he graciously agreed. Shortly after I saw a job posting for my current position, and it seemed like a great fit for both my skill set and my career interests. Though I only had a few years of postdoc experience and wasn’t sure I was experienced enough, I decided to take a chance and apply. Remember the scientist I had just met with for an “informational interview?” He actually knew the hiring manager and gave me a referral. In the end, the fit for my skillset and interests overrode the short postdoc, and the rest is history!
I learned two important lessons through this experience: 1) You never know when and where you will meet someone who will help you get your next job; and 2) Don’t limit yourself in applying because you can’t check all of the boxes.
What are differences you see between working in an academic vs. industry lab?
I’ve noticed two big differences. The first is the kind of questions we ask. Rather than focusing on publishing an interesting scientific story, we are more concerned with how we can use science to help patients and how we can feasibly turn the science into a new therapy. The second big difference is how we do science. Working in industry is much more team driven. We are all working together towards a common goal, whereas academia is much more dictated by individual scientists and labs.
What was the most valuable skill/lesson you gained from your time at UNC?
What I value the most about my degree from UNC is the very interdisciplinary education and environment of the tox curriculum. The coursework and the classmates I met gave me a broad understanding of all different areas of research and toxicology. It was also helpful to learn how to work with people from different disciplines. With that broad exposure and understanding that I gained from my PhD, I narrowed my focus more in my post doc, focusing more on clinical research.
Where do you see the future of toxicology?
I think that toxicology will need to advance in better ways of monitoring exposure and linking this clinical data and health outcomes. In my field, we have some ways to measure exposure to smoke within a few days but we don’t have good ways to quantitate lifelong or multiple exposures. Especially with the movement towards precision medicine, being able to understand how exposures contribute to disease will be essential in understanding different subsets of disease and predicting the effectiveness of particular drugs or treatments. I think the role of the environment and how that shapes how human health will continue to be an important field of research.
Any recommendations for current students/postdocs?
I would really encourage you to talk to people in different fields and explore new collaborations because that is where you develop those innovative and interesting research ideas.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I’ve been really getting into soccer! Living in California, you can really play sports outside all year round!
Interviewed and written by Mimi Huang.