Dr. Scott Barros received his doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill in 2003 working with Dr. Ronald Cannon and Dr. Raymond Tennant at NIEHS (Cancer Biology, National Center for Toxicogenomics). He then did a postdoctoral fellowship in renal pharmacology under Dr. John Pritchard at NIEHS. Dr. Barros transitioned to the pharma/biotech industry shortly after starting his fellowship and has since worked in Nonclinical Drug Safety & Evaluation groups at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Novartis, Archemix and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. He is currently Senior Director, Head of Toxicology at Sage Therapeutics.
How did you first become interested in toxicology?
I was a chemistry major at the beginning of my undergrad, but was getting burned out by the intense organic chemistry courses around my sophomore and junior years. I took an introductory course to pharmacology and toxicology and got hooked. I switched to the pharmacology and toxicology program at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, which was a great balance of both specialty areas. A lot of my experience from my chemistry major, particularly in organic chemistry, carried over to help in my new program, so it wasn’t a very big leap.
What did you first do after your PhD?
This path kind of picked me, and I was incredibly lucky that the timing worked in my favor as I was transitioning. My dissertation was focused in cancer biology, and I subsequently took a postdoctoral fellowship in a renal pharmacology lab. About 6 months into my fellowship, I saw a flyer for an industry position on a professor’s door, grabbed it, made a cold call to the recruiting firm. What I didn’t know at the time was that my PhD advisor was a fishing buddy of the hiring manager. I went through the interview process, and ended up being a great fit for Millennium, who were looking to expand their capabilities in predictive toxicogenomics in their early discovery pipeline. So it was really a combination of things – my background fit, the job was there, the timing was right, and I had the personal connection. You never know where an opportunity will present itself.
What do you do now? What are your overall responsibilities, as well as day-to-day tasks?
I spend a good deal of my day working and interacting with many others at Sage outside of nonclinical toxicology – for example DMPK, CMC, pharmacology, or exploratory research. I do a lot of problem solving and regulatory strategy in terms of advancing programs at all stages forward. Our goal is to identify potential problems at all stages, from drug discovery all the way through phase III trials. Nonclinical regulatory strategies are also a large part of my day, which might involve meeting with program teams to discuss a variety of scientific issues at all stages of drug development.
I still serve as a program team toxicologist, and some component of my responsibilities involves providing that expertise to ongoing studies. Right now I’m helping with a reproductive development and carcinogenicity studies for a late-stage program, so I still get to conduct my own studies and look at my own data- which is always at the heart of being an R&D scientist.
How did you develop some of these regulatory skills throughout your career? Is It difficult to be trained on a new area in industry?
I’m a molecular toxicologist by training – I was exposed to a lot -omics and molecular biology methods throughout my graduate research and postdoctoral fellowship. I didn’t have much traditional dose-and-measure in vivo toxicology training, and while I was at Millennium I recognized this as a weakness. The opportunity came up to be a GLP Study Director at another large pharmaceutical company, Novartis (New Jersey). This position was a total immersion-style learning experience of in vivo research, which exposed me to a broad array of study types and species. This was a phenomenal learning experience, and I got to see a ton, but soon realized that I preferred working in the small biotech company environment. So I moved back to Cambridge to work at Archemix, and have been in small biotech since (Alnylam, Sage).
In terms of extra training, there are so many new dimensions you can explore throughout your career. In the pharma/biotech industry, there is a ton of flexibility to pursue different aspects of toxicology – you could go more technical if assay development/technology/screening is your thing (Discovery tox), or perhaps be more basic research-oriented in an Investigative tox group, or follow a more traditional path as a Regulatory/Program team toxicologist. In smaller companies, I’ve been fortunate to find roles that encompassed elements of each of these.
You said you prefer a small biotech company rather than large – why? What do you see as the main differences?
Big vs. small biotech are very different. At a small biotech you can see the whole drug development process and get a sense of what everyone is doing; and there are typically lots of opportunities to be a contributor in areas outside of your core expertise. At a large company, there’s more division between departments as a consequence of managing a larger scale pipeline, and your work tends to be narrower and more specific in scope. Find what fits your personality – I love the unpredictability and chaos which are components of a small biotech company. I ultimately chose a career where I get to do a bunch of different things all at once, many of which are often unrelated to my core training in toxicology.
What were some valuable skills you gained during your PhD?
First and foremost, doctoral training is all about learning to be an independent investigator. The skills of self-reliance and control over your research are vital. However, that shouldn’t come at the expense of learning cross-disciplinary skills and how to work in a team. Every lab is different, but I was fortunate to participate in many collaborations with other groups. This was hugely valuable, because drug development in the pharma/biotech industry is heavily matrixed, team based, multidisciplinary (all the buzzwords you frequently hear). The idea of a one-person show doesn’t really exist on the biotech side the way it might in academia. Interviewers in industry are definitely looking for examples of how you can work well with others.
What advice would you give to current graduate students who are interested in pursuing careers in the biotech or pharmaceutical industries?
Pharmacology, biochemistry, and cell biology experience are huge in drug development, which I think helped me a lot at the beginning. Whether you go down a hardcore toxicology path or not, some level of clinical/anatomic pathology are also useful. The direction of medicine and pharmaceutical research is ever-changing with novel modalities appearing with increasing frequency – target biology, drug delivery systems, immunotherapy, gene therapies, oligonucleotides, CRISPR etc. It’s important to have a solid and broad background in the basics so you can understand and eventually be trained in these areas.
When you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?
I’m pretty outdoorsy and enjoy all four seasons in the northeast – I like to run, hike, and mountain bike. Massachusetts is great for outdoor activities – we do our best to separate our kids from their devices and get them outside to enjoy it!