Unique Journey to a Career in Biotech
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic as the demand for diagnostic testing rose, news was widespread about critical shortages of the reagents required for PCR tests. PCR, short for polymerase chain reaction, can detect trace amounts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in specimens collected from the nose, throat, or saliva by amplifying the DNA. In Amgen Biotech Experience classroom labs, students use PCR to amplify their own DNA to test for the gene for tasting PTC, a bitter tasting compound similar to those found in broccoli and kale.
“Simply put, PCR is a way to make many copies of DNA. Oftentimes when DNA is extracted from cells, there is not enough of it to do anything useful with,” says Conor Fields of Amgen Ireland. “It is one of the most widely used techniques in genetic laboratories around the world with applications in infectious diseases, gene therapy, and even forensics. Its contribution to research is so huge that it won the Nobel Prize in 1993.”
When the PCR reagent shortage was in full swing, Fields volunteered to go work at University College Dublin (UCD), which is the ABE program site in Ireland, to help a team there create the materials needed for PCR testing kits for hospitals across Ireland. Usually a quality control associate working in the separation sciences department at Amgen, Fields added his considerable expertise to help the region ramp up its diagnostic testing capabilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the work of scientists like Fields into sharp view, calling attention to the critical role biotechnology plays in our lives. We spoke with Fields about his work at Amgen, his early interest in science, and his thoughts on the future of diagnostics.
First, how has the pandemic been in Dublin? How are things going there?
Like the rest of the world, we have had to accept a new way of life. Naturally, this has been a challenge—not being able to see friends and family—but thankfully most people have followed the public health guidelines and we appear to have more control over the situation. I’ve personally witnessed a strong community spirit and a willingness to protect the vulnerable. For me, I feel grateful that my work schedule has remained relatively normal. So many people have been negatively impacted by this pandemic, but I firmly believe we will bounce back!
What is your usual role at Amgen, and how has that changed during COVID?
At Amgen, I work in the separation sciences department. Every day we perform a variety of tests on the drugs that we produce to be certain they are safe and effective for our patients, who rely on these medications. These tests are critical for providing us information about how pure and effective our drugs are. At Amgen, our main goal is to supply our patients with the drugs they rely on. To reach this goal, we have continued to work through the ongoing pandemic as essential workers. There have been challenges, of course, but we follow strict social distancing at our site to help contain the spread of the virus.
When you volunteered to work at UCD, why were the PCR supplies hard to come by?
Nowadays, many of the materials required to perform a PCR test come as a ready-to-use kit and include things like proteins, enzymes, and buffers that allow the PCR reactions to take place. As you can imagine, with COVID-19 spreading around the world, there has been a huge demand for these PCR tests so that we can identify people who have contracted the virus. Due to this, the companies who make these materials cannot supply them fast enough to meet the demand across the world!
How did you first become interested in science?
If it weren’t for my Leaving Certificate [final examination in the Irish secondary school system] biology teacher, I would likely be in a different career today. He brought the subject alive for me and made it so interesting. He taught us the importance of asking “why?” It quickly became my favourite subject. He also encouraged me and two of my classmates to submit a project to the BT Young Scientist exhibition during 4th year, where we received a “highly commended” score from the judges! From there, my mind was made up, and I decided to study science at university and never looked back.
You then went to Trinity College and got a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and then on to UCD for a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. How did you come to work at Amgen?
Previous to my current position, I worked [in biotech] with other scientists who were former employees of Amgen. They spoke highly of Amgen as a company. So when a position became available at the Amgen Dun Laoghaire site, I was quick to apply.
What do you see as the future of diagnostics?
I think we are already living in the early stages of the future of diagnostics. Many people will be aware of the personalized mail-order genetic services some companies offer today. These services can inform individuals about genetic predispositions to certain hereditary diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s. Some even have FDA approval. Of course, these tests cannot confirm you’ll get one of these diseases, just whether you’re carrying certain genetic “biomarkers” that can predispose you to these conditions. It’s a fascinating area that will see a huge surge of growth and interest in the near future.
Any advice or thoughts for students who might be interested in pursuing diagnostic work in biotech?
I would always encourage someone to follow a path where their interests lie. Never feel forced to settle on a career path for the wrong reasons. For me, a career in the biotech industry has offered a nice balance of challenge and reward. It is a career where you will directly contribute to providing the medicines that millions of people rely on. It’s a dynamic industry, with lots of opportunity to grow and develop. Having an interest in your area of work makes a huge difference. As the saying goes “Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life.