Alumni Stories: Ray Zhong

Ray Zhong
Neurosurgery Postdoc, 2013 - 2019

Strategic Insights and Planning Associate Consultant
ZS Associates, South San Francisco

How do you define career & professional success?

I want to make an impact in the healthcare system -- especially in drug discovery and development. At ZS Associates, as part of the Research and Development Excellence consulting practice, I work on pre-commercialization projects for pharmaceutical clients. In this role, I can help move drugs through the drug discovery and development pipeline faster. Ultimately, I want to help expedite the treatments that patients need.

Briefly describe your Stanford research project and its significance.

A major effort in neuroscience research is to study the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying synaptic plasticity. This is important because defective synaptic plasticity has been implicated in various neurological diseases, such as autism spectrum disorders.

In Dr. Lu Chen’s lab, I led a project to discover the role of a key signaling molecule, retinoic acid (RA) and understand its role in the nervous system. Retinoic acid, a derivative of Vitamin A, regulates homeostatic synaptic plasticity, a key mechanism that keeps the brain’s network activity stable and balanced.

Previous studies from the lab investigated synaptic defects in Fragile X syndrome (FXS) in vitro and found that synaptic RA signaling and homeostatic plasticity are severely impaired in neurons of individuals with FXS.

My latest work tested this concept in live animal studies and revealed three findings: First, synaptic RA signaling is an essential homeostatic synaptic mechanism in vivo; second, a particular group of inhibitory neurons, named Parvalbumin-positive interneurons, mediate the effects of RA; and, third, RA signaling in Parvalbumin-positive interneurons plays an important role in Fragile X syndrome mice, the model for studying autism. Essentially, the homeostatic plasticity is severely compromised in these mice.

My research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience in October 2018.

How did you decide to enter management consulting?

After receiving my PhD In Neurobiology & Behavior from Georgia State University in Atlanta, I came to Stanford as a postdoc and single-mindedly believed that I should pursue a career in academia. I was focused on my research, and, at the time, I thought that a faculty position was the only option for a PhD researcher, not knowing about the many opportunities for scientists.

In fact, I knew nothing about consulting until three years ago, when I started to hear about it from lab peers and others. I began to learn about consulting as an option and tested my interest by participating in various consulting projects and doing many informational interviews. The interviews turned out very positively, and I decided to go after management consulting for the next stage of my career.

Would you like to describe an exciting aspect of your work?

Every project is different, but they all share a similar scientific thinking process. You need to delve into the science, understand the problems, analyze data, and provide solutions. Finally, you develop recommendations for clients to pursue near term.

Currently, I am working on a project to “rescue” a major clinical drug trial for an autoimmune disease to ensure it recruits the number of patients it requires to proceed. Our team has to examine the main objectives of the trial, as well as the clinical trial site planning and execution, patient inclusion/exclusion criteria, and geographical issues – many elements that can influence a trial’s outcome.

Many people don’t realize that each clinical trial costs millions of dollars and that delays of only a few months can significantly impact a drug’s approval timeline. For patients, they may have to wait longer for a drug that may improve quality of life – or even save life. For pharmaceutical firms, they risk losing their edge of being first to market, resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue.

What is the general culture in management consulting and what are the top skills necessary for success in your field?

In management consulting, the pace is different. It is rapid and results-oriented. One works on multiple projects in parallel, and one is constantly learning. Fortunately, the culture is very supportive and collaborative, and mentorship plays an important role for career development.

There are a number of skills that are important in consulting. In addition to dedication, one has to have solid communications skills, good time-management, be detail-oriented, and have a proactive demeanor.

How did your Stanford training prepare you for your career of choice?

Not only did Stanford prepare me professionally, enabling me to develop strong analytical skills and consulting skills, but also gave me the privilege to work with my postdoc mentor Dr. Lu Chen. I got a close look at what it means to be a true scientist. She made a lasting impression on me, teaching me that you have to have a passion for pursuing the unknown, you must go deeply into the research, and be open to alternative hypotheses.

Also, I benefited greatly from collaboration among the three neuroscience labs. Each Monday, Drs. Rob Malenka, Thomas Südhof, and Lu Chen held their Tri-Lab Meetings. At this gathering of more than 70 scientists, trainees presented their research and were able to test the general interest and receive comments from the group. The principal investigators brought their expertise to bear, testing the hypotheses, the research’s significance and findings, and examining protocols.

Since I worked with invertebrates in graduate school, I didn’t have the specialized training in how to work with vertebrates that were necessary for my new research. One of Dr. Malenka’s postdocs came to my rescue and shared with me the proper methodology for a key experiment I was conducting. This assistance accelerated my research progress.

How should current trainees make the most of BioSci Careers’ services?

BioSci Careers has many resources to help you: first, identify a career; second, develop necessary skills; and, finally, test your career interest through real-world experiences.

I participated in career workshops and courses, including a management consulting course, and I developed consulting skills working on actual business projects.  At the non-profit Stanford Healthcare Consulting Group, I was a project manager for two Stanford Hospital projects. I completed the IGNITE Program, offered by the Graduate School of Business, which teaches core business skills while working on a team project, developing a business plan for a new product. Additionally, I did an internship for a venture capital firm through Biotech Connection Bay Area.

What advice do you have for current trainees?

  1. Keep your mind open for different opportunities and see what is out there! Many PhDs and postdocs are prepared only for a faculty career and are unaware of the other opportunities available. Look around and learn what is out there before committing to a career. Test your interests through workshops, internships, and interest clubs. Meet with peers and get in touch with companies.

  2. It is not enough, however, to just listen to others describe the work, you must also actively learn about these opportunities, by training in real-world assignments. Leverage the opportunities that Stanford provides to enable yourself to grow, reflect and identify your true passion. Over the past three years, I was able to gather consulting, entrepreneurial and investment experiences that enabled me to develop a deep understanding of business.

  3. Find your peers and ask for their help. I am very grateful for those who helped guide me, worked with me, and practiced with me for job interviews. Today, our relationships continue to grow.

My mentors, my peers, and BioSci Careers were a tremendous help to me, and I, in turn, now want to actively help others.

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