Stanford Immunology alumni (left to right): Jake Glanville, Marc Bruce, Luis Zuniga, Erika O'Donnell, Garrett Heffner, Leah Sibener, Luhua Zhang, and Gregory Frank

Alumni Describe Their Professional Journeys & Importance of Giving Back

Nadine Taylor-Barnes | April 20, 2020

As the Immunology alumni came to campus to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their graduate program, they also came to give back to current trainees -- of their time, advice and resources. In two well-attended alumni career panels, one for academic careers and the other for industry and other careers, alumni described life after Stanford.

Alumni gave essential, insider advice about what life is really like outside the Stanford labs, in a world “where science is happening fast,” where they are building upon their Stanford research at other universities, or doing entirely new research that spans discovery, pre-clinical, and clinical work in large and small companies. They are also working behind the scenes providing the critical scientific knowledge and investments for those firms.

They are all driven by, what Gregory Frank, PhD, 1997, who has worked in every stage of drug development, so aptly described as, “the desire to solve important problems.” Now teaching strategic business development at UCSC, he said, “there are one hundred ways to solve those problems and get tremendous satisfaction.”  

Alumni candidly described how it wasn’t always a clear path for them to their current position. There were serpentine routes to success, failures and mishaps. Zigs and zags. Many alternated between academia and industry, and all agreed that exciting research is happening on all fronts.

Some alumni, like Garrett Heffner, PhD, 2008, had been in an academic postdoctoral position in Boston when he first learned about career options in industry. The company Bluebird Bio was doing translationally relevant research in gene therapy, and he decided to join it. Since then, he has returned to the Bay Area to join Audentes Therapeutics as a director developing gene therapy for rare diseases, such as X-Linked Myotubular Myopathy, a severe debilitating conditioning that affects skeletal muscles.

Devavani Chatterjea, PhD, 2001, did the opposite. After working in drug development for autoimmune diseases at Genentech, Chatterjea turned to academia becoming a professor of biology at Macalester College. Her lab researches how mast cells regulate chronic pain driven by allergies to environmental toxins. “I have mentored close to 100 undergraduates,” she said, “and nurtured their love of biology and immunology. Many are pursuing careers in research and medicine. My Stanford training has enabled me to give back – and to help nurture the next generation of scientists. What could be better?”

Then you have Jake Glanville, PhD, 2018, who spent time in both academia and industry concurrently. Glanville co-founded Distributed Bio, Inc., an immunoengineering biotech company, right before entering the PhD program at Stanford in 2012.  He continued to grow the company, while completing his PhD. Now with his PhD complete, and with Distributed Bio at 17 employees and growing, he’s excited about developing their therapeutic pipeline. The company is using artificial intelligence, big data, and machine learning to help almost 40 pharmaceutical firms analyze, discover, and engineer antibodies.

Others went straight from their graduate studies into biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms. Leah Sibener, PhD, 2018, went from Chris Garcia’s lab into biotech and co-founded 3T Biosciences that is using machine learning to both analyze unique cancer cell antigens and then genetically engineer and modify T cells to target those same antigens. While Luis Zuniga, PhD, 2011, formerly at Merck, now Director, Innate Immunology, Ascendis Parma A/S, and Luhua Zhang, PhD, 2016, Research Investigator II at Bristol-Myers Squibb, went the pharmaceutical route becoming scientists. They described how important papers are being published by scientists working within these firms.

During his alumni presentation, James HealyMD, 1998, PhD, 1998, said he took “a serpentine route to Stanford and my vocation after growing up in Montana and living in Hawaii, Utah, and Denmark” before deciding what he wanted to do with his career. He certainly found it, as President and General Partner of Sofinnova Investments, a firm that finances clinical stage biopharmaceutical companies that span oncology, neuroscience, immunology, cardiology, dermatology, drug-resistant pathogens, rare genetic disorders, and other diseases.

Healy told the audience, “Take opportunities, expand both your network and your vision. I have learned there is no singular path to vocational happiness.”

Michael Birnbaum, PhD, 2014, worried about even having a career, as he described how his mentor Chris Garcia, PhDhelped him avoid spending his entire PhD studying what turned out to be an artifact. Birnbaum thought he had found a novel finding in how T cells signal and how they don’t. Only it wasn’t a finding; instead, it was an artifact, as Birnbaum said, “due to a graduate student being careless – namely me.”

Take opportunities, expand both your network and your vision. I have learned there is no singular path to vocational happiness.

- James Healy, MD, PhD

“The observation was super interesting, and I struggled for a long time trying to understand and reproduce the result,” said Birnbaum, “until I realized that the initial experiment was faulty.” Birnbaum appealed to Garcia for help, and together they realized “new, more rigorously-obtained data that provided amazing insights into T cell recognition. It was rigor -- and my mentor -- that got me out of an embarrassing situation.” For Birnbaum, it all turned out all right, as now he is an assistant professor of Biological Engineering at MIT.

The alumni spoke about developing professional skills and how the ability to communicate, manage projects, people and finances, enhances all scientific careers.

“Developing professional skills is important for all positions,” said Healy. “Build professional skills because poor management can kill even the best scientific discovery.”

Being a principle investigator with a research lab at Colorado College is similar to running a small company, according to Olivia Hatton, PhD, 2011. “Running a lab is like being an entrepreneur,” she said. “Today, as a PI you have to be a visionary, manage finances and people, and raise funds – in addition to knowing the science.“ After investigating the role of the Epstein-Barr virus and B lymphoma cells with her mentor Olivia Martinez, PhD, Hatton became an assistant professor in molecular biology at Colorado College. Hatton believes that “scientists should develop marketable skills so that “they can hit the ground running” in their new positions.

Internships play a big role in trainee professional development, according to Maureen Panganiban, the former student services manager of almost thirty years. “Immunology is integral to medicine now.” she said, “and graduate students do internships, to get their feet wet.” In doing these internships, alumni said you learn professional skills, such as how to manage projects or present research.

The alumni gave professional advice that the audience felt was right on. They encouraged trainees to do informational interviews and network, calling scientists and alumni to learn about their daily responsibilities, about the company or university cultures, and asking questions. They stressed flexibility and teamwork.

Stanford Immunology alumni (left to right): Devavani Chatterjea, Olivia Hatton, Adrianne Vasey, Lauren Ehrlich, Andy Snow, Mike Birnbaum,  and Lena Ho Wilson


Lauren Richie Ehrlich, PhD, 2002, now an associate professor of Molecular Biosciences, stressed the importance of following your passion in science and being willing to be flexible. In her case, it was a dual passion combining researching T cell development and teaching.

“I first realized my passion for teaching,” she said, “when I served as a TA in Pat Jones’ immunology class.” Then, as a graduate student in Mark Davis’ lab and postdoctoral fellow in Irv Weissman’s lab, she investigated the mechanisms underlying T cell development and self-recognition and non-self-recognition. Her lab at The University of Texas, Austin, is still pursuing this fundamental question today. Ehrlich added, “Consider the different hats you’ll be asked to wear in different types of jobs,” she said, “I can’t stress the importance of that.”

When applying for a position, “you don’t need to meet every requirement,” said Glanville. It’s about the best possible match. “Remember to talk about your experience, specifically what you did, and how it can apply,” said Erika O’Donnell, PhD, 2009, Senior Scientist, Primity Bio, “and don’t use the royal we.” Sibener added, “And don’t have typos on your resume!”

How do academia and industry differ? “Simply, breath of knowledge,” said Glanville. O’Donnell agreed. “You can wear many hats in a small company,” she said.

Teamwork figures prominently, as Sibener pointed out, “In academia, it is your project alone. Whereas in industry, you are members of a team, and you have to work together in order to succeed.”

“I’ve seen great scientists join from academia,“ said Heffner, “who require some mentoring and time to adjust to a biotech team because it’s different.” He elaborated further, “In industry, you become a member of a team, and you advance a project together as a team. But what’s really exciting is to see the project advance together as a team. And, throughout the time on the team, you learn and grow and contribute.”

Finally, Marc Bruce, PhD, 2014, Co-founder, CTO, Microvolution, made an important point about being able to communicate the science regardless of your position. Others need to understand the significance of what you are doing – and why you are doing it. He said, “Whatever your job title, you are doing communications.”

“The reunion is great for both sides,” said O’Donnell. “We were mentored by great scientists, and now it is our opportunity to give back. We have to do this again, soon!”

The Stanford family continues.