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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

This Pharma Expert Is Inspiring the Next Generation of BIPOC Scientists

Amanda Khan, a principal associate scientist at Biogen
Amanda Khan, a principal associate scientist at Biogen.
| Courtesy of Biogen

Amanda Khan always knew she wanted to be a scientist in some capacity—but she truly found her calling in a ninth-grade biology class. “When we got to the microbiology section, I realized I enjoyed the middle part of biology,” she says. “Physics and chemistry were too small, and biology broadly was too big, but molecular biology was just right because it touches both ends of the spectrum.”

Khan continued her studies in college, expanding her areas of interest to cell biology, genomics, and epidemiology. But after three semesters of undergraduate genomics research, she realized that academia wasn’t right for her. “I wanted to apply my knowledge to affect patient’s lives more directly,” she says. “The pharmaceutical industry was the next natural step for my career.”

Today, Khan is a principal associate scientist at Biogen, a role that requires her to be a jack of all trades. “This is ideal for me at this point in my career journey,” she says. “Working in a constantly evolving environment challenges me to continue growing and highlights areas for my improvement.”

Here, Khan shares Biogen’s approach to career growth (including tuition reimbursement), how she’s helping the next generation of BIPOC scientists, and why it’s important to look beyond pharma news headlines.

What led to your job at Biogen, and how did you know it would be a good fit?

I was introduced to Biogen through my first industry role at a nearby biotech company. I was initially drawn to Biogen’s physical presence in Kendall Square. When I looked into Biogen’s mission and history, I immediately wanted to work there; the mission aligned with my interests scientifically and personally. Throughout the next two years I routinely watched for openings and applied to a few different roles. My goal was to leverage my degree in molecular biology and industry experience to showcase my transferable skills.

What are you responsible for in your role?

My current role is in Nonclinical Safety Study Management and Operations. I manage the nonclinical safety archives, support in and out licensing of programs, and coordinate early development in vitro assays. I also support various continuous improvement projects, interface with vendors, and maintain department contracts.

Some projects I have worked on include onboarding equipment and working with my pathology operations team to establish business processes for the equipment and supporting colleagues in the implementation and roll out of an assay requesting system.

What transferable skills from your prior work in quality control have helped you succeed in a more scientific role at Biogen?

Quality control (QC) microbiology and nonclinical safety do not visibly align on the surface. QC microbiology occurs when the drug is marketed and being manufactured, while nonclinical safety is involved early in the drug development process. Knowing this, I chose to highlight the overlaps between roles.

Some of the hard skills that supported my transition into research and development (R&D) were my experience revising standard operating procedures, performing technical review of client data and reports, conducting deviation and non-conformance investigations, and supporting implementation of corrective and preventative actions. In addition to those, soft skills were also very important, such as customer service and client relations, working effectively in small and large groups, creative problem solving, and being agile.

What is the most challenging part of your job? And the most fulfilling?

The most challenging part of my job is commuting; I’m still trying to figure out which method is best for me, and I am considering investing in hovercar development. 

All jokes aside, the most challenging part of my job is also the most fulfilling, which is the changes in program prioritization at any given time. There are numerous ongoing programs that require support at different levels and in different capacities. I have had to learn to communicate with my manager and colleagues when a shift occurs that I may need help with—something I didn’t experience as much at smaller organizations. Adjusting to team members’ working and communication styles can be challenging, but successfully navigating that is what makes me feel fulfilled.

What inspired you to go back to school for an MS in toxicology? How is Biogen supporting you in your efforts?

As I developed in my career, I learned a lot about what I did not enjoy, which helped me more clearly define what I do enjoy. As I learned more about the different roles in nonclinical safety, I realized pharmacology and discovery toxicology perfectly encapsulated my interests and aligned with my previous studies. In 2022, I decided to pursue further education and earn an MS in toxicology.

My manager has been a pivotal part in my career development. She guided me to resources for toxicology advancement, allowed me to shadow my colleagues, and approved my request for tuition reimbursement. Biogen partners with Bright Horizon Ed Assist, which offers support in identifying programs and universities that fit my work schedule, lifestyle, and budget. My goal with my degree is to continue working at Biogen as a board-certified toxicologist and continue my education further through a PhD program.

In addition to the tuition reimbursement program, how else does Biogen champion employee growth?

Of all of my academic and career experiences, Biogen has the most opportunities across functions and interests. It sponsors internal and external leadership programs, conference attendance, mentorship programs, employee resource networks, job rotation opportunities, Community Lab, and a volunteering hub, to name a few. In addition, the company culture enables employees to apply for programs and fosters open discussion with managers to address career and life goals. I say life goals because leadership skills, for example, extend beyond the workplace and can boost a person’s self-confidence overall.

I am grateful to have participated in a few of Biogen’s offerings, including the associate program with The Partnership, an organization whose mission is to provide BIPOC professionals with the skills needed to continue succeeding in their industries. In addition, I’m in a cohort of R&D colleagues participating in internal leadership trainings, I attended a weeklong certification training with the American College of Toxicology, and I was selected to be a member of Biogen’s R&D DE&I Council.

Tell us about your work on Biogen’s DE&I council.

DE&I in the sciences has always been important to me so when the opportunity to join Biogen’s R&D DE&I council arose, I immediately applied. The council was started in 2020 by an HR partner and a group of about 20 R&D colleagues with the purpose to address how Biogen can support DE&I in the sciences and acknowledge DE&I across various facets of drug development. This includes addressing diversity in clinical trials, supporting open discussions of social disparities in our communities and how we show up at work, showcasing the incredibly diverse talent within R&D, and supporting students in their academic journey.

When I joined the council, I was pleasantly surprised to see heads of departments, associate scientists, and everyone in between. This allows for discussions that cross generational workplace attitudes and highlight how approaches to DE&I have evolved over the years. Members have always been compassionate and passionate about supporting each subcommittees’ goals and events.

Most of my DE&I experience is working with students from middle school to university level to showcase the magic of studying science, so I gravitated to the external presence subcommittee, which I led in 2022. With the support of the council, we attended a conference to facilitate discussions on what working in the pharmaceutical industry is like. We felt reinvigorated by the optimism and passion of the attendees especially after having lost a lot of connectivity due to the pandemic.

What is a misconception about working in the pharmaceutical industry and how would you respond to it?

One of the most common misconceptions I hear is that profit is the leading factor in drug development. Having worked on different ends of the pharmaceutical industry, this is absolutely not true. From the initial concept of a drug to manufacturing it, the patient’s health and well-being are the main goal of all the companies I have worked for.

There are many checks and balances in the drug development pipeline implemented not only by the FDA, but also internally to ensure we understand how the proposed treatment can affect patients. It is easy to get caught up in news headlines and study abstracts taken out of context, so I encourage anyone I interact with to approach everything they hear or read with a critical mindset.

How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

I enjoy going to art and history museums, crafting jewelry, creating mixed media art, sculling (a form of rowing), and exploring new places with friends and family. I have also recently started listening to audiobooks, taking Hot Girl Walks, and using the Headspace app to practice meditation, which is more difficult than I thought!