Hamed Mirzaei, Ph.D.:
Leaving the Ivory Tower to Bring a Greater Understanding of Science
When I began looking at university options and possibilities in Iran, I was confronted with the reality that there were not many universities that offered courses and graduate degrees in genetics. That became one of the factors in my journey across the water.
While completing his Ph.D. in molecular biology and genetics at the University of South Florida, Hamed Mirzaei had a mission – to bring a fuller understanding of science to as many people as possible. Having previously designed and taught a course called “The Public Understanding of Science,” he sought to bring this message to a broader audience. In 2014, Hamed created a nonprofit foundation for arts and sciences—a platform where anyone in the community could hear from scientists, engineers, professors, and professional artists on a range of topics.
This same mindset, of bringing a fuller understanding of science to the world, drives his work as a Medical Science Liaison in Oncology at Amgen. Mirzaei spoke with ABE about his experiences as a high school student, his path to Amgen, and his advice to students now.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in science?
I’m originally from Iran and finished high school there before coming to the United States in 2001. While I was in high school, the field of genetics was starting to gain a lot of traction and capturing headlines. There was a lot of news coverage on what it could do for medicine and humans in general. There were also a lot of sci-fi movies becoming available in Iran at the time. I was maybe 15 years old the first time I saw the movie “The Flash” — the old one, of course — there is a scene where he is working in the lab, and lightning strikes, which gives him his powers. I remember watching that and thinking to myself, “I want to be a scientist!”
Soon after, I realized that was not what actual scientists do. However, I was still very interested in the field of science and eventually became interested in biology and genetics specifically. From that point on, I set my mind to becoming a geneticist. When I began looking at university options and possibilities in Iran, I was confronted with the reality that there were not many universities that offered courses and graduate degrees in genetics. That became one of the factors in my journey across the water.
What were you like as a high school student?
I was a troublemaker — never shy to ask questions. I would question why we did one thing versus another, which often got me in trouble. I talked a lot in class, whether with a teacher or people sitting next to me. I was a A/B average student. Some subjects came easily, and others I had to work really hard at. I was really good at chemistry in high school and college — up until I took biochemistry. Then everything changed all of the sudden: I went from being an A student without any effort to getting my first C. I was like, “how is this possible?” However, it turned out most of the class actually failed that test, so I was still above average!
How did you end up in your current job? What was your path?
While I was completing my Ph.D., I wanted to be a professor. However, after starting my postdoctoral research my opinion of academia quickly changed. I realized it was not the merit-based ivory tower I was led to believe; instead, it was mostly a regular business with folks hiring and funding the people they knew rather than being based solely on achievements, which drastically reduces the opportunities available for new investigators Upon realizing this, I gave my career a lot of thought and began questioning the notion that staying in academia was the default— I needed to decide what I wanted to do next. That moment launched my transition from academia to industry.
I really enjoyed teaching and had done a lot of it during both my graduate work and my postdoc. Therefore, I knew I wanted a position in industry that would allow me to continue to communicate science. I learned about medical communications during my postdoc, which to me, felt a lot like teaching. I applied to many companies including Amgen, where I got a job as a manager in Global Scientific Communications. After being in the role for a little over a year I explored a path within Amgen to become a Medical Science Liaison (MSL).
I had actually been interested in an MSL career before looking into a medical communications role. However, as it happens, an MSL job is hard to break into without experience and you can only get the experience once you have the job — a true “catch-22.” Leveraging a medical communication role as a stepping stone is one way to transition internally, as it was in my case.
What kinds of skills do you use in your job?
As an MSL, I serve as a scientific resource for physicians on our marketed oncology products in addition to our early development pipeline and biosimilars. I also support existing and prospective clinical research with external research institutes such as universities and hospitals. In this role, you need to be fairly comfortable with responding to emails, and you need to be comfortable with communicating — even if stylistically it’s not perfect. I have to answer quickly and also be very proficient in answering correctly. It’s important to be OK with picking up the phone and cold-calling physicians and sites of care and being able to initiate a conversation to ask a question and not over think it too much. Of course, you also do need the scientific and technical background, but that’s a given.
Could you please share something that has surprised you in your career?
Honestly, nothing really surprises me anymore, although perhaps how my experience evolved in academia. When I was an academic in an ivory tower, I took it as if it were a genuine ivory tower — merit-based and independent of ideologies, gender, ethnicity, and background — where people only valued the science and what expertise you brought to the table and no other pretenses mattered. However, when I realized that academia wasn’t the merit-based system it was described to be and in fact it was more of a literal boys’ club, I stopped expecting the idealistic representation of careers and became a bit more cynical.
Fortunately, the boys’ club in academia is, slowly, beginning to be dismantled. In fact, incoming students get to be less concerned about the boys’ club and more concerned about developing their expertise and of course the science itself.
On this topic, I’m impressed that at Amgen we have a lot of female colleagues that hold very high positions. Looking at my senior leadership team, there are lots of female members, which you don’t often see in other companies — and certainly not in academia.
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in your field?
You do need the technical background for the career you want to get into, which could include science, engineering, math, arts, or business. If your resume does not contain those keywords, you probably won’t get an interview, but to get your resume looked at in the first place you need to network early and often. My advice is to study what you enjoy in school and make friends in every department, build skills, establish and collect connections, and, even more importantly, be authentic.