Turning point: Industry immigrant

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Collaborations lead to a research post with a top drugmaker for a longtime federal scientist.

Elena Drummond

Immunologist Thomas Wynn left a 20-year career at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, earlier this year to lead research on inflammation at Pfizer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Why did you leave the NIH for industry?

I've collaborated with big pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies since the mid-1990s. I worked with Amgen to investigate the therapeutic potential of different antibodies in models of inflammation and fibrosis, and with Genentech we examined inflammatory pathways in asthma. I've negotiated agreements with Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies to move basic science on fibrosis into preclinical trials conducted collaboratively with the NIH. I was doing so much with industry that I decided to explore what it would be like to do this work full-time.

Did the current US administration affect your decision?

It's not a major reason for my move at all. It's unfortunate that the administration is not, at least outwardly, as supportive of science as previous administrations were. But I put my faith in Congress and the US Senate, which have always shown support for science and for the NIH.

How would you describe morale at the NIH?

Surprisingly upbeat despite what's going on in the news and the threat of NIH budget cuts. The fact that NIH director Francis Collins is still at the top has helped.

How did your colleagues react to your move?

A lot of people were shocked.

What will be your biggest challenge as you move into industry?

At the NIH, labs are a one-person show. People develop collaborations, but they are fragmented. At Pfizer, groups interact seamlessly. I get to work with geneticists, chemists, molecular biologists and bioengineers. The culture is different here — it is focused on translating the best ideas into new medicines.

How did the move affect your NIH research group?

It was a slow process accepting the job here because of worrying about my research family at the NIH. Nothing stopped immediately. Most of my lab is still there. Three members have accepted positions at Pfizer. Everybody has until 2018 to finish up projects, publish and make their own career moves.

How did you come to work at the NIH?

After getting my PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, researching how macrophages kill tumour cells, I wanted to work more on disease pathogenesis. My PhD mentor was married to a parasitologist. They suggested I merge my interests in molecular immunology and parasitology. I wrote to several people doing parasite immunology at the NIH and was invited to work as a postdoc in the laboratory of parasitic diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda.

Describe your NIH career.

I was a postdoc at the NIH from 1991 to 1995, and then a staff researcher until 1997. Opportunities for full-time employment at the NIH were few and far between, so I began interviewing for jobs outside. But a retirement opened up a slot for a tenure-track investigator. I had other offers on the table when the NIH began recruiting, but I ended up with the position in 1997.

Do you think you'll get more accomplished in industry?

That hits the nail on the head — it's what I find most exciting.

You did a lot of mentoring at NIH. What made for successful mentees?

I mentored more than 20 postdocs, as well as graduates and undergraduates, during my time at NIH, where I was also scientific director of an NIH–Oxford–Cambridge Scholars programme. The junior scientists who tend to stumble are the ones who don't reach out for help or forge collaborations with people. It's important to take advantage of expertise.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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