Career Portfolio - Karen Chandross: Senior Director of RD Strategic Initiatives Scientific Relations at Sanofi

The transition from academia to industry remains a question nearly every doctoral researcher faces during their PhD.  Often, we ask ourselves “What comes next?”. The Offspring has dedicated a section to provide ideas on what to do next and to highlight different career paths of scientists within and outside of academia.

August 01, 2018

by Maria Eichel

Good news: we continue with our Career portfolios in 2018. This time we had the chance to interview Karen Chandross who is senior director of Strategic Initiatives & Scientific Relations at Sanofi. Sanofi is a global biopharmaceutical company focusing on human health and is a leader in healthcare. With their research and development (R&D) and business areas, they cover diabetes & cardiovascular diseases, vaccines, Neurodegenerative diseases and Multiple Sclerosis, oncology and immunology, rare diseases, consumer healthcare, and generics. Karen joined Sanofi in 2000 and worked in R&D, focusing on Multiple Sclerosis for 15 years. She remains with Sanofi today, and has taken an interesting turn within the company. Before joining Sanofi, she did her PhD at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine between 1990 -1995 focusing on peripheral nerve regeneration, followed by a postdoc and senior staff fellowship at the National Institute of Health (NINDS) working on regeneration of the central nervous system. In this interview, Karen will tell you about her daily job life at Sanofi as well as challenges, changes and advantages of working at a Pharma company. Like others, she highlights how important our gut feeling and instincts are for making career decisions and how an open mind can lead up to more possibilities.

The Offspring: Tell us something about yourself. Who are you? What is your scientific background? What did you do in the past and where are you now?

Karen Chandross: I am a neurobiologist, received a PhD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in NY and did a postdoctoral and senior staff fellowship at the NIH-NINDS. I joined Sanofi in 2000 and never left: Spent 15 years working on Multiple Sclerosis (MS) research and early development focused on neuroprotective/regenerative strategies before moving into my current role, which focuses on establishing new Research & Development (R&D) strategic initiatives that involve external partnerships.

The Offspring: What does your average day involve? What kind of challenges do you face? Do you have a routine?

Karen Chandross: My current role involves understanding both our internal needs and the unique strengths that external scientists can bring to addressing any gaps through cutting edge science, technologies and approaches. As such, much of my day involves building upon internal and external networks, listening to others and leading new initiatives. Challenges include securing support for and engagement around these initiatives and maximizing their value for our internal projects. I try to avoid routines, however, moving away from lab work lends itself to a lot more time on the computer. The good news is that if you don’t feel fulfilled, there are many different career opportunities (within the same company) to fit your personality and career ambitions.

The Offspring: What do you enjoy most about your current job at Sanofi?

Karen Chandross: The opportunity to create new initiatives that through private-public collaborations and facilitate Pharma‘s direct access to innovations that can build relationships and bridges that can bring value to patients.

The Offspring: How did you benefit from your skills/knowledge gained during your PhD and time as a postdoc? Do you miss something about your job in academia?

Karen Chandross: My basic science and collaboration experience helped to secure a lab head position within Pharma. However, there is much more to learn about drug discovery and development beyond the basic science. It took me about 6-8 months to appreciate the concepts and, through different roles (lab head, project lead, group head, translational medicine lead, partner), many years to really understand what it takes to develop safe and efficacious drugs for humans. And I still learn something new every day. The key to flourishing in this environment is to embrace the reality that successes are rare and emerge through many failures, so patience, persistence and adaptability is key. I have no regrets about leaving academia but also work hard to maintain these important cross-sector relationships.

The Offspring: Did you struggle with your decision to leave academia at that time?

Karen Chandross: Initially yes, but my passion for developing drug-based therapies to reverse the damage that MS causes and the opportunity to do something in Pharma that had never been done before (at that time) in the Neuroscience field made the transition easy.

The Offspring: How did you find out what you want to do?

Karen Chandross: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a scientist. However, my focus on MS was linked to losing a close friend. Watching her lose mobility, slowly, over decades and finally succumbing to the disease was heartbreaking. Feeling helpless to ease the pain and suffering of a loved one (or pet) is something we can all relate to and is a very strong motivator. This personal connection to a patient was my driving force.

The Offspring: Any plans for the next steps?

Karen Chandross: For most of my career I have focused on Neuro/MS. However, it was when I opened myself up to other opportunities that things really began to happen and, at this stage in my career, I’m open to all possibilities.

The Offspring: Any advice for young scientists and doctoral researchers on making career decisions?

Karen Chandross: Go with your instincts rather than succumb to external pressures. If you are truly interested in translating basic science knowledge into human solutions, then Pharma or Biotech is a great place to be and still the only place where you can go from idea to humans; providing an opportunity to explore careers beyond biology.

There is no right answer when it comes to starting out as an industry postdoc versus an entry-level biotech position. Doing a postdoc in pharma can provide useful translational experience and help you decide on your longer-term goal. However, an academic postdoc can serve you well if you end up deciding to go back into academia and this experience can also be used to leverage a better position in pharma. Pharma is hiring top talent from academia for leadership positions, so additional hands-on academic research and high impact publications, especially in the translational sciences, are helpful.

In Pharma, we work in teams around the common goal of identifying and developing new therapeutics to treat human diseases that are both safe and efficacious. This offers an opportunity to think outside the box and reach beyond the basic sciences to learn about the various aspects and stages of drug development. However, you may have to let go of your project if it is stopped or once it advances to another phase of development and work outside of your primary team on several different projects, or have to adapt to changes in strategic priorities and organizational changes. The bottom line is that you have to be adaptable and eager to collaborate.

At the same time, pharma jobs can be more stable than biotech and you have the opportunity to easily move around within or outside your company. Consider a 5-year plan to allow for the opportunity to demonstrate your leadership around a project or effort and the value that this brought, and use this experience to leverage a better position within your company or in the next company.

In general, be open to working on different things. Although having a particular expertise helps to get your foot in the door, in the longer term, there are more opportunities within a company for those with interests in several areas of pharma, especially in the event that an entire division or department is discontinued. Even the addition of a new branch to a company can provide another opportunity to work on new and exciting projects.

The Offspring: Can you tell us something surprising about yourself?

Karen Chandross: I love to do artwork and (for the smaller things) have a small Etsy shop together with my mother. I have always had a Siamese cat -- they are super smart and loving.

The Offspring: You are banned on a tropical island for a year. Name three things you would take with you because you cannot live without it:

Karen Chandross: A fully loaded and stocked yacht equipped with sonar, satellite, dingy; a hot tub; and flint/steel plus a sharp hatchet, just in case. I enjoy camping out but not for an entire year.

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