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Alternative Scientific Career Path, Interview #1: Clinical Research Scientist [Matt Sundermann, PhD]

Hey Matt! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with Strik3 :)

First, it would be helpful to walk me through your background. What is your current job title, a little background about the company you work for, and how long have you’ve been doing this type of work?

Glad to share my experiences, Danielle, and thank you for the Strik3 interview invitation!

I work as a Clinical Research Scientist for ZOLL Medical Corporation. ZOLL markets medical devices and software solutions involved in Emergency Medicine, Critical Care Medicine, and cardiac monitoring. ZOLL is a mid-sized company with about 5,000 employees across 4 business divisions, and is a member of the Asahi Kasei Group, a much larger company headquartered in Japan.

The business division I am a part of within ZOLL is Cardiac Management Solutions and the primary products that we manufacture and service include a Wearable Cardioverter Defibrillator, devices for arrhythmia monitoring, and devices for heart failure monitoring.

That’s so cool! And you had previous experience in cardiac-related fields before, right? So, what led you to become interested in your current job?

I have always had interests in medicine, research, and science, and these interests led me to pursue a PhD in Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. My graduate school research was also related to Emergency Medicine and Critical Care Medicine, and my current role at ZOLL became a natural fit and next step.

That’s great. It’s very encouraging that you were able to seamlessly find a job after your PhD, in your related field! That’s not always the case for most grad students and post-docs, though.

How important is it for somebody’s background/experience in grad school to match the Therapeutic Area of the Clinical Research Scientist jobs they apply for? So, if somebody didn’t have Emergency Medicine or cardiac experience in grad school, would it make sense for them to apply to a job like yours at entry level?

It can be helpful, but I do not think it’s required. I made a transition from my dissertation work, which was focused on Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, to more of a heart failure focus at ZOLL. My new focus area was still ‘heart’ related, but different enough that it was refreshing to work on something new.

I agree! It’s helpful to be in a related area, but it doesn’t ever have to exactly what you’ve studied, which I think people sometimes have a hard time letting that go. Anyway, let’s get back to you. Give me a brief explanation of your job, where it fits in the industry, and what you do on a daily basis?

As a Clinical Research Scientist I’m involved in many activities related to Medical Affairs and Clinical Operations, but also work cross-functionally with other departments including Regulatory, Marketing, and R&D. I’m lead scientist on ongoing clinical trials involving the HFMS system, as well as a variety of more basic science initiatives involving defibrillation.

Wow, that seems like a lot.

Side note: I think its important for students and post-docs entering industry to understand the differences between Medical Affairs, Clinical Operations, Clinical Affairs, etc. Be sure to research this as you’re preparing for industry interviews! ...Maybe a topic for a future Strik3 blog post, perhaps?

Anyway, what do you do as “lead scientist” with these clinical trials? You’re not at the bench, right?

No. I am responsible for study protocol generation, study site engagement, and publication plan coordination. I periodically meet with study investigators at medical conferences to discuss study progress and data.

I’m also expected to be a subject matter expert in all medical fields related to our devices, including defibrillation, heart failure, and arrhythmia management. I periodically work with our Regulatory experts on PMA or 510k applications, as well as coordinate research activities with our R&D department.

So, for "protocol generation," do you develop the study protocols yourself?

Mostly, yes. I develop the study design, objectives, and endpoints. These protocols are also developed in close collaboration with Regulatory, Clinical Operations and Marketing.

That sounds really exciting and this is is all very helpful information for those who may be interested in a job like yours! It seems like you’re using a lot of transferable skills you learned from grad school, that aren’t necessarily, say... pipetting or histology?

The experiences I gained during graduate school translate well to a Clinical Research Scientist, but there are a few skills that I found I needed to learn or become more proficient at when I first transitioned out of academia. Communication is important, especially with project management. Some project stakeholders need to be intimately involved in a project, while others need to be updated only occasionally.

Understanding these roles takes some time, and I think this is true when joining any new company. Ultimately you are responsible for communicating the progress of your work to others, which can be a bit more complex than a graduate school environment when you only report to your PI.

That makes sense, I totally agree that maintaining appropriate communications with various project stakeholder to effectively achieve engagement is so important! I know my time in clinical trials, what you mentioned was critical. As was method of communication. Some PIs responded well with emails, while some required a text or phone call to get an answer.

What's your work schedule like?

My work schedule is typically a 9am-5pm commitment. Before Covid, I would also travel about 20% of my time which included weekend medical conference attendance.

And you work from home now, right? When you work weekends for conferences, do you get to take some time off during the week?

Yes, I currently work from home (as of August 2021), which has necessitated some modifications in how the teams I work with communicate. Weekend work for conferences has typically initiated future flexibility for time-off.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

Clinical trial protocol writing can be difficult. When writing a clinical trial protocol, you are writing a ‘recipe’ that will collect data to answer a research question or hypothesis, and you want to make sure you collect all the data and evidence needed to adequately answer that question. I typically write a first draft, but then after further thought and deliberations, make revisions that add other data points or tests that I had not originally thought of.

When writing clinical trial protocols you also have to consider what would be feasible in the medical clinic or patient population that is targeted. Data collection in clinical trials involves subjects making scheduled visits to their doctor or receiving phone calls by the study site. Many subjects may become non-compliant if a protocol is designed to involve too many data collection points, so it is important to understand and capture the minimum amount of data that is needed so that subjects will not become fatigued or burned out with a study over time. It can be a difficult balance.

Absolutely. I did some clinical trial protocol writing during my time as a Clinical Trlal Project Manager and scientific strategy is definitely required as well, like you mention about keeping the study participants involved so the study successfully meets the outcomes and endpoints, it can be tricky!

OK, what is the best part of your job?

I think a key characteristic of being a good scientist is being a good communicator. One of my favorite roles at ZOLL include activities where I am required to explain the science behind the devices and clinical trials we conduct. Our clinical trial results are communicated through medical publications, but I also enjoy reviewing/debating/discussing our science with physicians, nurses, and key opinion leaders.

That is awesome that you get to interpret and discuss results with KOLs. It really seems like you’ve found an exciting job that heavily relies on your scientific abilities as well as transferable skills beyond the bench/lab.

What advice do you have for somebody who is interested in pursuing a job like yours after graduate school?

Networking is important and helpful to develop a career. One of the best environments I found in graduate school to network was at academic medical conferences. Most of these conferences have booths where it is easy to meet industry contacts and talk about their products and interests. Some of my contacts I have today at ZOLL were made at medical conferences I attended during my second year of graduate school.

Communication skills development is also critical. During graduate school I participated in the Artificial Heart Program at UPMC, where I worked as a clinical engineer specializing in Ventricular Assist Devices (VADs). In this role, I communicated regularly with teams of nurses and physicians in a hospital setting, and was directly involved with patient care. These experiences helped build my confidence for my current role as a Clinical Research Scientist.

Thank you for that! Conferences are so important for networking! If you don’t mind, how did you get involved with the Artificial Heart Program, through networking? And how much time did you spend there - asking about balancing PhD work with an extracurricular, especially one which has a huge patient impact!

I first heard about the Artificial Heart Program through an elective class during my first year in graduate school. I had other graduate school friends who had said positive things about the program, which led me to eventually apply.

The extra time committed to the Artificial Heart Program was demanding, but ultimately worthwhile. Students in my position would typically take overnight or weekend shifts and each shift was 8 hours. Balancing overnight shifts with lab work led to some sleep deprivation and long days. I am very grateful that my advisor was supportive and flexible.

Anything other tips or words of wisdom you want to provide to Strik3’s community?

Seek out good mentors and advisors. I was very fortunate at Pitt to have a fantastic advisor in Jim Menegazzi, PhD. A good mentor will always look out for their mentees, and is usually intimately involved in your success. I am very grateful for having a strong mentor during my time at the University of Pittsburgh.

Aw, it’s wonderful to hear about positive PI-Mentee relationships :) I’m so glad you had a supportive mentor during grad school! Do you have any specific pieces of advice for students trying to strengthen or improve their relationships with their PhD mentors or committee members?

I think it is important to communicate well and speak openly about goals with advisors. Goals should be short term (what am I going to accomplish next week) and also long term (annual goals).

I think also establishing boundaries between graduate school work and life outside the PhD program is important. These conversations can be difficult, which I think is why it is important to be open about them.

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