Kailene Simon: Finding inspiration and navigating roadblocks
In the Decoding Life series, we talk to geneticists with diverse career paths, tracing the many directions possible after research training. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Career Scientist Career Development Subcommittee.
Kailene Simon is a scientist not just driven by passion, but by cause. When she was in high school, she lost her grandmother to the rare disease scleroderma. Her curiosity to understand the disease, passion for science, and urge to serve society eventually led Simon first to Genzyme, now part of Sanofi, a Boston-based company with a strong reputation in the rare disease community, and then to Atalanta Therapeutics, a startup company focused on developing siRNA-based therapeutics to treat neurodegeneration.
Simon started at Genzyme as a research assistant immediately following her graduation from Providence College, where she obtained an undergraduate degree in biology. As an RA in the Bioanalytical Development group, she supported several rare disease projects, including one focused on scleroderma, but soon realized she needed to continue her education. Using a company-sponsored degree program, Simon was able to continue working at Genzyme while earning her MS from Tufts. As her career progressed, she again felt compelled to return to graduate school, this time for her PhD.
However, unlike with the masters’ degree, there was no precedent in her company for obtaining a PhD while working full-time. Undeterred by this, Simon initiated an agreement with the University of Massachusetts Medical School which allowed her to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry as a full-time student while also maintaining her scientist position. After completing her PhD, she was offered a position as an associate director of in vitro biology at Atalanta Therapeutics, which was founded by UMass scientists Anastasia Khvorova, Neil Aronin, and Craig Mello.
What was your motivation for joining industry?
When I was in high school, I lost my grandmother to a disease called systemic scleroderma. The biggest challenge my parents faced in caring for my grandmother was finding a doctor who could identify her collection of symptoms for what they were—a rare autoimmune disease. By the time she was properly diagnosed, her disease had progressed beyond the point of treatment, and she passed away within a few months. We now know that with the correct diagnosis and treatment, patients with scleroderma can often have a normal life expectancy. But as is the case with many rare diseases, the limited research and treatment options that existed (especially in the mid-90’s) made her diagnosis and treatment particularly challenging.
Motivated by my experience, I decided to attend PC as a pre-med/biology major with the intention of going on to medical school. However, during my sophomore year an opportunity arose to work in the biochemistry lab of Dr. Yinsheng Wan that provided a view of what being a research scientist was like. Dr. Wan was a fantastic mentor and was the first to discuss a career in industry with me, something I had not considered until then. Admittedly, he did encourage me to consider grad school first, but I decided against it and began applying for jobs in rare disease research. The opportunity to be a part of improving the lives of people like my grandmother was incredibly important to me, and there seemed like no better place for this than at Genzyme.
Why did you decide to go back to school after spending so many years in industry?
A few years after I began working in industry, I developed a sense of the gaps in my scientific knowledge. I was also working with two women in leadership positions in my group who both had PhDs, and I benefited from their excitement for science. At that point, I decided I needed to go back to school. I took advantage of their tuition reimbursement program and applied to a part-time master’s degree program at Tufts. This allowed me to work during the day and take one class at a time in the evenings until I had completed my degree.
My PhD happened a few years later. After years of following the leadership of some wonderful scientific directors, I felt confident in what I knew in the field of biology and what I could contribute, but I also knew I still had a lot to learn. When working with my colleagues with a PhD degree, I always felt an inherent difference in their thought process compared to mine. They could think more critically about the trajectory of their work or the rationale behind choosing one therapeutic modality over another for a given patient population or target. In industry, these factors are what make a program successful.
Why did you decide to pursue a PhD while also working a full-time job?
As I was finishing my master’s degree, my husband Andrew (a fellow Genzyme scientist) and I got married and bought a house. Around that same time, I began to think seriously about pursuing a PhD, a career goal of Andrew’s as well. However, because we had just purchased a house, giving up both salaries in lieu of grad school stipends was not an option. And despite having the support of my immediate supervisor, conversations with our leadership team about the possibility of working toward the PhD while at Genzyme were understandably met with skepticism. So, after much discussion, Andrew and I collectively decided I would stay at the company, while he would go back to school full-time with the understanding that once he was finished, I would return as well.
A few years after Andrew went back to school, we welcomed our son, Bennett, which coincided with Sanofi’s buyout of Genzyme and a major reorganization of the company’s leadership. Two years after that, with Andrew still engaged in his thesis research, we found out we were expecting again, and this time we were having a girl. The news that we had a daughter on the way suddenly made getting the PhD seem much more urgent. I realized I never wanted her to ask why her father had a Ph.D. but her mother did not. I also knew that if I were going to return to school, I needed to do it right away, or I likely would not do it at all. And since we relied primarily on my salary, I had to find a way to hold onto my full-time job.
So, after discussions with our parents about what it would take for us to pull this off (and them offering their unwavering support in all possible ways), and at six months pregnant, I went to the dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to ask about the possibility of doing a PhD while also working full-time. To my relief, he was supportive and excited. On his side, he convinced the associate dean of the graduate school and the dean of admissions for their support. On my side, I went back to Genzyme (now Sanofi), to ask for their support to build this collaboration of sorts, so I could keep my salary. Unfortunately, unlike with my master’s, there wasn’t a lot of precedent for doing a PhD while holding a salaried position. There were some programs for executives, which I used as an administrative loophole to get an inroad, but I was the first to ask for the opportunity to combine my work responsibilities with a doctoral program. There were so many factors at play – who would own the IP? (Sanofi), would UMass pay me a stipend? (no, but I did keep my salary and benefits from Sanofi), what happened if the company decided to terminate my project (too bad!) After a lot of back and forth with the Sanofi lawyers, they gave their approval for me to work on a discovery research project that supported a drug discovery program at Sanofi, but that was funded with grant money from a third party. Three days before I went on maternity leave, I signed a contract with our head of R&D that gave me permission to move ahead with this arrangement. A few months later, I interviewed for and was accepted to the graduate program at UMass, and when my daughter was eleven months old, I started the PhD program.
You had two kids before you joined the PhD program. How did you balance your life and work?
I started graduate school when my children were just shy of turning one and three, and life became more hectic than ever. In many ways, my academic schedule was the same as every other student. I was, of course, expected to take all the classes required by my PhD program, including the career development courses, while doing rotations and my thesis work. Yet I was also expected to fulfill my obligation to Sanofi to maintain my position there. This often meant going to class in the morning, then heading to Sanofi by noon and working late in the lab. Whenever possible, I would make it home in time for a late dinner with Andrew and the kids (who became experts at the flexible schedule our situation commanded), and after dinner we would put the kids to bed, and we would both sit back down at our computers to study or analyze data. It was a challenging schedule but having a partner who was willing and able to share the childcare responsibilities equally made all the difference. We were fortunate that my first few years back in school overlapped with his last few, so we had the flexibility of his grad school schedule to make things easier. I also had the advantage of my experience as an industry scientist, which helped a lot. I had been in a lab for 15 years at that point and I had developed good time management and project management skills.
Once the first year was over, my course load got easier, and we found ourselves in a good routine. But no matter how well we managed our days, we could not have done this all alone. We relied heavily on my parents, who provided two days a week of childcare for us. And every week, my parents kept the kids for an overnight so there was always one night (usually Thursday) where we could work late in the lab guilt-free or even sneak in a late dinner date at a pub near our house.
In the end, it worked out, and I was able to graduate in just under five years. Looking back on the experience now, I am so glad I made the decision to go back for my doctorate. It was tough, of course, but for our family, it was worth it. And while I know that this path wouldn’t be the right fit for everyone, it feels great to know I didn’t have to choose between having a family and having the career I wanted. More importantly, I am grateful that with the support of UMass, I was able to be an example for what it looks like to invite industry into the world of academia and create a collaborative relationship in the process.
What prompted your move to Atalanta?
After I graduated with my PhD, I was ready for the next step in my career. By that time, I had been at Genzyme/Sanofi for about 18 years, and it felt like the right time to move to a completely new environment. I had begun considering my options when a friend from school reached out to me to discuss a potential opportunity with a startup company she was helping establish with her PI at UMass, Anastasia Khvorova. She connected me with the company’s CEO, Alicia Secor, and CSO, Aimee Jackson, and after speaking with them I knew this was the best place for the next phase of my career. The opportunity to work at a company with a founder who has been such a force in the field, and for a leadership team of such talented women, was something I couldn’t pass up. I was employee number 13 at Atalanta, which meant having the opportunity to help build the science organization alongside some amazing scientists. I started the position in February of 2020. Building a lab from scratch during a pandemic was incredibly tough, but my team is fantastic. They, along with the rest of our company, are all working very hard, very quickly, and we are making exciting progress!
I was so fortunate that the right people took a chance with me—first at UMass, then Genzyme, and now at Atalanta—and it has made all the difference. After twenty years in this field, I have finally gotten to where I want to be.
About the author:
Ruchi Jhonsa was a liaison on the Early Career Scientist Career Development Committee. Currently, she is an account manager at Absorption Systems, Philadelphia. She strives to educate young scientists about career development and is passionate about writing new scientific developments from academia and industry.
Learn more about the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Leadership Program.