Forging a New Path—From the Ranch to the Lab
Doing work that is challenging, even frustrating, but staying the course and working through a long and arduous process with a team of talented and motivated people ... is definitely the most exciting thing that I continue to work on.
Weston Sutherland remembers having great teachers at his small public high school in California. Growing up on a working cattle ranch in California, he had an early interest in science from interacting with the ranch staff and the large-animal veterinarians and being outdoors. In addition, his science teachers wove their industry experiences into their lessons. Yet, despite these influences, Sutherland was not sure what to do after high school.
“I didn’t have access to great college planning resources, and I was not at all sure what I wanted to do for a career at that point,” Sutherland recalls. He eventually forged his own path through college, earning an undergraduate degree in biology and then a master’s in business, and now works at Amgen Thousand Oaks as a senior scientist.
Sutherland also mentors high school students, including those participating in ABE, to help them navigate their educational and career options. We spoke with him to learn about his experiences and his job in biotechnology.
What was your educational path like after high school?
I’m a first-generation college graduate, and my educational path was challenging. My parents worked very hard, but we didn’t have any relevant experience with college applications or attendance. I ended up missing most of the university application deadlines and spent 2 years at Taft Community College earning an associate in arts degree, playing football, and learning how to be a college student. I was a good student and did well in classes in high school, but I needed to learn how to work a bit more independently and manage my schedule and coursework. It was a very good experience, and I felt fortunate that it worked out the way it did. From Taft, I transferred to California Lutheran University (CLU) and graduated with a BA in biology. I later returned to CLU to earn my MBA.
What got you interested in biotechnology in particular?
While I was enrolled at CLU, there were a number of labs that revealed the promise of biotech. In addition to that, some of my classmates who had graduated and begun working in biotech shared their experience and their excitement about working in that industry. They spoke of how fulfilling it was to apply what we learned in school to the bigger picture and to work on developing new medicines to help people. I did my senior research project on the immune system of sharks, and that almost drove me into marine biology and field work; however, the tools that I used were biotech, and I started to see how those tools could be leveraged to continue down this path.
What do you do at Amgen?
I assess new molecules to better understand their impact on the cardiovascular system for safety and to see how well they might work as a future medicine. Doing work that is challenging, even frustrating, but staying the course and working through a long and arduous process with a team of talented and motivated people to see a project through to the clinic and then on to an approval is definitely the most exciting thing that I continue to work on.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
My favorite days are spent in the lab, working with my team to conduct studies in support of the portfolio. It’s complex and challenging, and it can be frustrating, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.
What does a good day look like for you?
A good day looks like applying what we learned from previous work—and sometimes from previous failures—to run a successful experiment that generates key data.
Is there anything you know now about biotech or the career path you wish you had known in high school?
I wish I had realized earlier how much overlap there is between disciplines. In high school, all of the subjects were taught on discrete tracks, so biology felt separate from chemistry felt separate from physics, and art felt wholly different from language. The reality is that all of these things are very closely related, and a lot of those relations are revealed by following a career path in biotech. Creative thinking and problem solving and understanding of complex relationships are required, and it makes the career path interesting and rewarding.
What trends do you see in the future for biotechnology?
I think the speed at which drugs are discovered, developed and trialed will continue to increase. I also think that custom solutions to disease based on individuals or small pools of patients will drive better outcomes in many cases. We’ll manage more and more complex data, and we’ll integrate that data into an even more cohesive drug development process. We’ll continue to leverage the overlaps across disciplines to better serve patients.
What drives you to mentor students now?
As I mentioned previously, I’m a first-generation college graduate. I had very little exposure to the possibilities of biotech or a career in biotech while I was in high school. I know that there are students who are underserved and may not have the exposure to the potential benefits of pursuing a career in science early enough to influence their choices. On the other hand, there are kids who are taught that a successful path is very linear, in that you go from high school to undergraduate to graduate to post doc and then settle into a career. My own path, and that of many of my colleagues, was not linear in that way and I think it’s important for young people to know and understand that there are many ways to be successful in this field.