Munzareen Khan PhD '21, Neuroscience: Innovation Postdoctoral Fellow, Novartis Institutes of BioMedical Research
Can you describe your career path and how it has led to your current work?
I was always fascinated with the brain and how it makes us who we are and how dysregulation of the function of the brain can lead to different pathologies. I stumbled upon research by accident. I was a pre-med major in University of Connecticut and I wanted to have some research experience to apply for medical school. I started working as an undergraduate research assistant in a lab which studied etiology of Parkinson's Disease and I fell in love with what research entails - working everyday to solve a puzzle, something that is unknown. After graduation, I worked as a Research Assistant in a neurobiology lab in Yale School of Medicine. That experience solidified my love for science and research and I decided to apply to graduate school. At Brandeis, I was in the neuroscience program working in the Sengupta Lab. My research focused on understanding the molecular and neuronal mechanisms of how experience and context can shape behavioral responses. For family health reasons, I had to take a one year leave during my PhD which at the time felt like it would be impossible for me to return and excel in the program. It was during my year of leave that I took opportunities to explore my career interests. For a semester I worked as an Adjunct Faculty of Biology in Dean College and I also worked in a biotech for 6 months. I was really fascinated by the fast pace and the translational research that is done in industry and that experience contributed to my decision to pursue an industry postdoc after graduating from Brandeis with a PhD in Neuroscience in 2021.
I am now an Innovation Postdoctoral Fellow at Novartis Institutes of BioMedical Research. This is a postdoc training program that emphasizes building innovative technologies, building scientific and communication skills, and understanding how a drug goes from being a target all the way to the clinic and also emphasizes learning the business side of drug development as well. I am currently developing innovative technologies and gene therapies to target neurological disorders. I love that I have freedom to develop my own projects in this program. So in hindsight, the break from graduate school and the real world experiences were very pivotal to my career.
What services and/or resources did you use while at Brandeis for your career search?
While at Brandeis, I reached out frequently to the Center for Career and Professional Development, especially starting my 4th year of PhD, but I would advise current students to start earlier! I also actively took part in the events held by the Career Development for the Sciences group. Through these events, I got to learn about different types of science careers and it really allowed me to understand all the different ways we can put our science degrees to use. I would sometimes reach out to the speakers through LinkedIn or write down their contact information so I can reach out to them as a resource later. This really helped me to broaden my network and come across some cool opportunities. The Center for Career and Professional Development also helped me connect to alumni that had similar interests and I found that to be really helpful to learn about their journey. I have also used their resume building resources and had mock interviews with the Professional Development team.
What skills from your Brandeis degree have you found most valuable in your current work?
Brandeis cultivates and strongly emphasizes building critical thinking and communication skills. As a graduate student, we were always encouraged to think beyond the box and build thinking tools to effectively excel in any setting. As part of the science graduate curriculum, we had mandatory presentations at department seminars, regular lab meetings, opportunities to serve as a teaching assistant and I have found all of these experiences to be very critical in shaping up my communication skills. Additionally, the class sizes for graduate courses were on the smaller side, so we always had opportunities to interact with professors and really dig deep on the science. I have found that these skills have helped me excel in current work, even though the scientific area of my current work is not very relevant to what I did when I was in Brandeis.
What advice do you have for current students as they embark on their career exploration or job search?
My advice for current students is to build a network by actively staying engaged and finding time to have meaningful conversations with people in the program, the administration, professors, and alumni. Also it's never too early to start thinking about the next steps as it will help in paving a path to get there. As a graduate student, it can be hard to find time to socialize and build these connections but I think it's a great opportunity to hear about other people's journeys and all the different types of career paths that can stem from a rigorous science training program.
I think it is also important to not look at the next career step as a permanent decision or something that they would have to stick to you for the rest of their life. It is important to explore all kinds of career options and think about what career path will be most fulfilling for them next. I would also encourage current graduate students to have conversations with their mentors early on to find some time during graduate school to get real world experience in a field/career of their interest, either through a short internship or co-op. Most importantly, after graduate school, the next career step may not exactly involve the same hard skills or scientific skills as they developed in their graduate lab, and therefore it is important to cultivate soft skills, such as communication skills, writing skills, organizational skills, and leadership skills which can be applied to any position.