Meet Neil Templeton
In 2014, Neil Templeton graduated from Vanderbilt’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering program. Currently he is working at Merck & Co as a Senior Scientist in Bioprocess Development. We caught up with him to see how he made the transition from the academic lab to the pharmaceutical industry.
Jessica Parks-Piatt: So tell me what research you did for your dissertation.
Neil Templeton: My dissertation focused on cell culture engineering. My goal was to better understand the central metabolism as it pertains to therapeutic protein production. More specifically, I was interested in the production of monoclonal antibodies, a specific type of protein therapeutic. Production of monoclonal antibodies is a complex process that is poorly understood. To elucidate metabolism, I employed a technique called metabolic flux analysis (MFA). While mathematically complex, the output is simple: you quantify the rate at which processes happen. A Google maps traffic report tells you something quite similar—the overall rate or speed of traffic from one point to another. Instead of a traffic map, MFA uses a metabolic map. It tells you the rate at which metabolism takes place, how quickly one metabolic byproduct is turned over into another. Using MFA, various metabolic states were quantified. The aim was to determine which metabolic state(s) correspond with high final antibody concentrations (titer) in a batch/fed-batch operation. We found oxidative states of metabolism to be most associated with increased specific productivity, and glycolytic states of metabolism to correspond with increased specific growth rates.
The rationale behind doing this work? If you can more efficiently produce your product of interest, you can decrease the cost of production.
JP-P: How does this compare to what you do at Merck?
NT: My work at Merck is similar to the work I did at Vanderbilt. My focus remains on metabolism. One major difference is that I have much shorter industry timelines. I don’t always have the time to research problems in the same level of depth. However, my research directly serves people in need of novel therapeutics, and is very rewarding in that regard.
JP-P: Did you have any other experiences while at Vanderbilt that you felt really prepared you for both the job market at large and your position at Merck?
NT: I had the opportunity to present on a regular basis, perhaps every two to three weeks, both to conference rooms and via teleconference. I presented to multiple labs and North America conferences. Speaking simply and confidently about your work goes a long way in the job market.
JP-P: What are some tips that you have for students early in their grad programs?
NT: For anyone doing research, it’s important to take risks (especially early) and step into challenging (occasionally even uncomfortable) space. If you feel like you’re not sure you can pull off a given project, you’re probably doing something right. During my five years at Vanderbilt, I experienced some of my life’s most intense cycles of growth. And especially to the new PhD students, realize that when your experiments produce negative results, it is only negative because your hypothesis was disproved. Disproved hypotheses are positive for research.
JP-P: For students who are finishing their grad programs and looking at transitioning to either the academic or job market, what tips do you have for them?
NT: Become friends with Ruth Schemmer. Haha!
NT: Yeah, in general, be aware of resources that Vanderbilt has put into place to assist you for the next step. I got involved in seminars and workshop that were industry specific. I also explored academic specific workshops, but found myself bored. This was a sign. As I said before, the negative results can be just as valuable as the positive ones. I knew that while I have interest in teaching, I wasn’t ready to start out my career on the academic path.
For those about to graduate, make the most of any opportunity you have to travel to conferences. The people you meet there may be willing to provide recommendations, or even better, interviews. They also may provide the sort of tips you cannot find by Googling. Don’t have a “just-get-it-over-with” mentality to conferences. David Tabb, a faculty member of Biomedical Informatics, once told me that if I did not meet people at a conference, I was really missing the point. Realize that while you can learn about someone’s research by reading scientific literature, it’s hard to meet them in a PDF.
JP-P: So, did you face any big challenge in preparing for your job search and future career? If so what was it and what resources did you utilize?
NT: The combination of making the most of my time at conferences, conducting research that was very industry applicable, and gaining a realistic sense of the job market from Ruth Schemmer, made finding a job straightforward. Having a strong relationship with my advisor helped a great deal, as he reached out to his own contacts to aid me in finding work. Finding a job is very much a community-based effort. It is important to build that community while you are a graduate student.
For university resources, Ruth gave me great advice on my résumé, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile via workshops and one-on-one support. While I did not compete in 3MT (another great resource), I was heavily involved in its organization. Communicating your research in three minutes or less is valuable experience and a great skill to have. Note that you will not necessarily gain such a skill in the classroom or by conducting research. There’s a great Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Ultimately, networking should be a goal from the beginning. Don’t worry about an interview/meeting not going to plan. Use these experiences to improve and evolve your approach.
JP-P: That’s great. Networking seems to be very important, no matter the field.
NT: Yeah, definitely.
JP-P: Any last thoughts?
NT: I thought I appreciated my time at Vanderbilt as a student. Yet, I appreciate it so much more now. The days I spent at Vanderbilt working towards my PhD were some of the best of my life. Still, if I’m honest, at times my research left me feeling heavily burdened and stressed. While such a position doesn’t sound like fun, I believe it an integral part of the PhD growth process. Just don’t allow such high stress to become a time constant.
Do take some time to have fun and be sure to establish a work-life balance. Establishing this balance will be essential to your time spent at Vanderbilt and beyond.
Neil’s Fun Facts!
Current city: Jersey City, NJ
Current position: Senior Scientist in Biopress Development at Merck & Co.
Degree program: Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Favorite professor: Jamey Young, advisor
Favorite Nashville restaurant: Mas Tacos Por Favor in East Nashville. It’s the most unique restaurant I have ever been to—even after living in greater New York City.
Favorite place to work: When I needed to think, I would find an empty classroom in Olin Hall. When I needed to write, I found a hutch in Eskind Biomedical Library.
If you would like to learn more about Neil and his work at Merck & Co., send him an email.
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