Career Pathways—Explore the Possibilities,Clinical Development Scientist

Dr. Betsy Kleba, Clinical Development Scientist at Exact Sciences Laboratories

Credit: Betsy Kleba

Interview With Dr. Betsy Kleba, Clinical Development Scientist at Exact Sciences Laboratories.

Interviewed by Brandon Walling, Ph.D., NIAID Postdoctoral Fellow

What are you going to do after your postdoc or Ph.D. research at NIH?  

The “Career Pathways – Explore the Possibilities” series highlights different professions pursued by scientists like you. This interview focuses on a clinical development scientist, someone who provides scientific support and acts as a liaison between scientists and non-scientists. Dr. Kleba works directly with the various branches of Exact Sciences as they develop new clinical tools while ensuring the development of these clinical tools flows smoothly.  

Dr. Kleba was a postdoc at NIAID for four years, where she worked in the Laboratory of Intracellular Parasites. Prior to her current position, she worked as an associate professor and faculty chair at Westminster College. Read this interview with Dr. Kleba to learn more about her journey to becoming a clinical development scientist. 

Can you tell us a little about the role as a clinical development scientist at Exact Sciences?

My role is at the nexus of three different operational units at Exact Sciences. I sit between the research and development (R&D) arm, clinical affairs, and the clinical lab. I work on bringing new diagnostic products from our development pipeline into the commercial lab where we can offer them as a medical laboratory service to the public. 

What is currently on your to do list, both short-term and long-term?

On a day-to-day level, I meet with colleagues to understand needs and work to ensure communications between R&D, clinical affairs, and the commercial lab are fluid. For larger efforts, I may also be assembling, leading, or meeting with project teams who are working to complete specific activities. As in any company, each of these arms has lots of people and a lot of activity going on. There might be places where there are miscommunications, requirements that have changed, or timelines that have changed so it is imperative to touch base and make sure we are aligned, on track, and delivering on all of the collaborative initiatives. 

Looking longer-term, Exact Sciences has a mission to eradicate cancer through early detection. This means that we are working to develop new diagnostic tools in the cancer space. As a bench scientist I always wanted to know “How do you take a great idea at the bench and bring it to the world?”  In industry, product development initiatives are large and they require cross-functional input (people working in many business domains within the company need to be involved). I have the opportunity to work with people from all over the company including IT, marketing, R&D, or market access for example. So this is the part that is most fun to me–in this role, I have the opportunity to not just learn what it takes to bring a new product to the world but also contribute to it.  It’s the combination of concrete, tactical activities combined with a strategic outlook that is so appealing.

What kinds of skills, technical or otherwise, do you think are important to have as a clinical development scientist? 

The key skills are strong communication coupled with the ability to stay organized and get things done.  Because there is so much information coming from all directions with many different audiences and many different agendas, sometimes it is just about translating ideas. You can take an idea from one space, but if you use those words in another workspace and with another audience in the company, [those words] would not resonate because they do not have meaning. Being able to translate concepts and ideas to a different audience so that we can all get on the same page is critical to making forward movement. 

It is no longer about my technical skills since I am not at the bench. However, my background in molecular biology and working in regulated environments has been instrumental in my ability to communicate with my colleagues in R&D and clinical affairs. Being able to speak the language of science at a molecular level and having the ability to take ideas or concepts and translate them back into the clinical lab space are important. 

What are your favorite aspects of being a clinical development scientist?

It is the bench-to-bedside aspect of the science and working with people across the organization. I like being in a cross-functional role where I am able to interface with different parts of the organization. I like learning and connecting dots.  Again, it is the good idea at the bench and connecting it to a new offering in the world. For example, I may meet with a group whose focus is market access, (understanding how insurance companies reimburse us for a product we are offering). Market access isn’t my area of expertise, but it is a facet of working in diagnostics and I like being exposed to these new facets and connecting the reimbursement dot to the product dot to the science dot. 

What do you find most challenging?

It is the fast pace—things change a lot! I like working in a dynamic environment, but that can go to a place where it can also become the challenge. You can find yourself working toward an established goal and then learn that the endpoint has changed—you have to roll with it and find a path to the new goal. 

You previously spent a number of years as an assistant professor and faculty chair at Westminster College. Would you mind telling us a little about your time there?

I was a faculty member in the biology department at Westminster College for six years and I was faculty chair for one. When we talk about academic appointments, there are typically three components to the job: research, teaching, and service. Because Westminster is a predominantly undergraduate institution, the teaching component contributed to the bulk of my academic load. I taught between three to five classes per semester, which is not what you would get at a larger, more research-oriented institution. My research program accounted for the least amount of dedicated time during a typical day. I still spent time on research, it just happened largely off hours or on the weekends. The service component of my job consisted of contributions that I made to the campus or to the department and that work evolved over time. I led a six-year strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis of the biology department for the college of arts and sciences. I was also part of a four-year working group that reviewed the liberal education curriculum for the college. The group determined that we needed to re-structure the curriculum to make it a more significant part of how we recruited, retained, and engaged students on the campus. It was the result of those activities that gave me the visibility and insights that led to becoming faculty chair. As faculty chair, I represented faculty during meetings with the board of trustees where we worked collectively to identify opportunities for faculty to contribute to campus-wide goals and initiatives. 

What was the application/hiring process like for these jobs? 

The application process for an academic position is very different from that of one in industry. When you are applying for an academic position, there are many parts to the application. You are submitting your CV, a research proposal, and smaller teaching schools might ask you to include a teaching plan or teaching statement. In private industry, you just submit a resume and a cover letter. I have learned that leveraging your network is really important in either scenario as a personal account of who you are and what you’ve accomplished can get your materials to the top of the review pile. It is important that you understand how to get your name dropped in the right circles to have someone actually look at your resume. It’s also important to understand how to tailor your resume to each job posting so that it is picked up by the algorithms used to look for applicant matches. These skills can be become increasingly essential if you are applying for a position that has a lot of applicants. 

What made you decide to go into the private sector?

I was a typical postdoc thinking about what my next step should be and what I wanted my career to look like. I took the approach that many forget to take: Look at life and evaluate, ‘What do I want from my life as a whole?’ Through this lens, I knew that I would be open to a career that might take on many forms, a career that would let me to grow and develop as a professional, and I also knew that I had to feel that the outcomes of my career made a positive contribution to the world. 

With that scope I knew that there were many possibilities, but I also have a partner who is a professional. When you have a dual profession household, you also have to consider their goals and aspirations when planning our future. Taking the broader approach [to choosing my career] made it easier to discuss things like, “Where do we go next?” and “Where do we want to live?” Some of those discussions can get really gnarly, but by being flexible and sharing needs versus “nice to haves” we were able to make decisions that suited both of us. That was how I landed at a liberal arts college. I didn’t grow up saying “I want to be a professor and I want to teach.” However, it met the requirements that I had for the kind of job I would be open to taking, and it was in the right geographic location. I thought that I could find it fulfilling, I would learn a lot, and there would be a lot of opportunity.  And my academic appointment was all of those things.
 
After several years in the one position I knew that I wanted to continue to grow, and I reached a conclusion that it wasn’t going to happen if I stayed in one place long term. That was my motivation to make a pivot. 

I went back to that core set of values and asked "What do I want out of this next step? How might I be able to build on what I already have done?" It’s clear that information technology drives the modern world and it is a space where I had little experience but much curiosity, so I pondered where I could bring learning about IT together with my background in science. 

I leveraged my personal network to get a job for a software company that was building sample tracking systems for contract research organizations and diagnostic companies. And while working for that company we were acquired by Exact Sciences, which ultimately opened up the current opportunity. I went from working in IT at Exact Sciences to leveraging the network I established within the company after getting acquired to land in the role I have today. 

How did you handle the “two-body problem”?

It is hard; my husband and I were together through graduate school and my postdoc. And each of those positions involved having to align moves, both professionally and personally. It really comes down to a lot of talking. It sounds vague, but there were distinct times where I realized we were not aligned and I wondered what was going to happen [and] if we were going to have to do long distance. But as time goes by and you keep talking and you have more time to think and do a little more digging, you realize that there are other vantage points or opportunities that you were not seeing before. You have to be committed to the relationship and committed to do whatever it takes to find common ground. Being respectful of each other’s vantage point gives you a framework to keep you centered during those difficult conversations when you are not on the same page. At one point, we took turns picking where we would move. The graduate school decision, that was really my decision, and the postdoc position, that was really more of a joint decision. When it came to the next relocation, that was really up to my spouse. He was starting a business and it required him to be in a specific place. I said as long as it is a big enough city that I can find a job, then I will do it. You need to find some level of flexibility and get down to the core of what is truly important to you. If everyone sticks to their guns and is absolute about their requirements, then it can be really hard. 

What activities or resources at NIH, or within NIAID specifically, helped prepare you for your career transition? Is there anything you wish you had taken more advantage of?

Sharon Milgram and Lori Conlan offered workshops in CV and cover letter writing. Those are tactical and pragmatic things no matter what kind of job you are applying for, academic or private industry; the words you put on paper are critical. Being thoughtful about how you leverage those words and compose them is instrumental in landing those jobs. Also think about networking. Because I was not hellbent on going into the typical academic track, I did not do a lot of research to find out what is needed to get a job at a small liberal arts college. My network was instrumental in helping me think through what an application to that kind of institution might look like. Reach out to that network to evaluate what your options are and how your application process is going to look for those kinds of job opportunities. 

Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about entering a similar career field? 

Broadly speaking, my advice is to dig deep and ask yourself what your core values are that will shape your career trajectory. Keep those in mind as you entertain what your options are and as you pursue those next steps. I had the mindset that there are lots of things I believe I can do and there are lots of exciting things I want to be a part of. I didn’t come at it from the [the mindset of] "I have to have this kind of job and this is what I need to get." While not having a single dream job can make it harder because then the whole world is your oyster, it does give you the flexibility to create your own career path. If you are in that kind of position, it becomes important to do that introspective work to find out what makes you tick and what you will find satisfying. Figure out what the pieces are that you love about what you do today and how that might translate into a different setting.

How did you winnow your options during your job search process?

At the beginning, it was reading all the materials and looking into what options are out there. Take a job title that sounds intriguing and look at job postings online and see what they say. In the private sector, different companies will use the same job title in different ways, but you can use that to find out what the private sector wants in a person with your background or training. It will build that broad understanding of translatable skills. It is the same in academia: constantly read those job listings for assistant professors to see how the world is advertising for those positions. You should also take advantage of your network. Set up a 20- to 30-minute informational interview or meet-and-greet with some questions to find out what they do. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Is it okay if current NIAID fellows contact you with questions?

Of course! My email is bkleba@gmail.com.
 

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