Bridging academic and industrial research in oncology: A personal journey

by Sandra Carvalho

Embarking on a career in oncology research, I always envisioned a path deeply rooted in academia. My journey was rich in exploration and discovery as a graduate in Biochemistry, a PhD developed in the area of molecular oncology, and a postdoc that combined molecular oncology and nanotechnology. However, as I navigated the complexities of academic research, I found myself at a crossroads, which led me to a surprising but rewarding transition into the industrial sector. This personal journey through academia and industry has offered me a unique insight into these two worlds’ collaborative potential and challenges in the fight against cancer.

“As the boundaries between academia and industry become more collaborative and integrative, I find myself at the forefront of this exciting convergence”

A shift from academic exploration to industrial realities

In academia, the pursuit of scientific truth, especially in a field as complex as oncology, was both exhilarating and frightening. The academic environment, with its intense focus on publishing and seeking grants, often felt like a high-risk gamble with no guaranteed results. Despite the intellectual satisfaction of investigating the mysteries of cancer biology, the precarious nature of the career became increasingly evident.

It was during the pregnancy of my second child, after four enriching years in my postdoc, and a subsequent year marked by academic disappointments, that I faced a profound realisation. The academic path, although intellectually rewarding, seemed fraught with uncertainty and instability, especially for someone who aspired to balance a growing family and a thriving career. This personal turning point led me to reflect on the direction of my professional life.

I began to appreciate this time in my life as more than just an extension of my academic journey. Instead, it emerged as a pivotal moment, ripe for broader career considerations. Over time, I recognised it as an opportune phase for exploration, diversification of skills, and a potential pivot to alternative career paths, beyond the confines of traditional academia.

Blending worlds: Embracing industry’s pragmatism with academic insight

The leap from academia to industry, specifically to a biotechnology company like RUBYnanomed, was and still is both frightening and exhilarating. In academia, my research was primarily knowledge-driven, often without immediate practical applications. On the other hand, at RUBYnanomed, a women-founded, science-led startup, the focus is on translating scientific knowledge into clinical practice through the development of a cancer monitoring tool. Rubychip, an innovative tool developed by RUBYnanomed and designed to isolate circulating tumour cells directly from patient blood samples, enables non-invasive and repetitive testing, ultimately impacting patient surveillance and improving outcomes.

This transition is not just about adapting to a new professional environment; it’s also about how academic research and industry work are starting to converge and create societal value. As the boundaries between academia and industry become more collaborative and integrative, I find myself at the forefront of this exciting convergence!!!

The industry demands a more results-oriented approach, where research not only aims to answer fundamental scientific questions but also to develop viable, market-ready solutions. It’s a shift from a purely curiosity-driven approach to a more pragmatic, goal-oriented mindset. But this transition is also about taking advantage of the skills developed during my academic career. Skills like research methodology, critical thinking, and resilience were equally valuable in the industrial setting. At the same time, I’m embracing new competencies, particularly in project management, business strategy, and regulatory landscape – skills that were not emphasised in my academic training.

In the end, it’s all about combining the depth of academic insight with the pragmatism of industry to create impactful and innovative solutions.

Building bridges: The power of networking in transitioning careers

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced on my journey is the gap in networking opportunities for researchers transitioning from academia to industry. In academia, there is a well-established community where collaborations, mentorship, and knowledge sharing are part of it. In the industry, however, such a community is less apparent, especially for those in recent transition.

Building and nurturing an ecosystem of researchers who have embarked on or going through similar journeys has become crucial. This network should be more than a simple group of contacts; it should be a platform for exchanging ideas, discussing challenges, and sharing insights. A space where we can learn from each other’s experiences and advice, and possibly collaborate on new projects. It will serve as a vital resource to help transitioning researchers recalibrate their skills and approaches to align with the industry focus.

Final thoughts: Reflecting on my transition from academia to industry, I recognize it as a journey of growth, adaptation, and discovery. Embracing change, being open to new paths, and stepping out of your comfort zone is essential for researchers in this evolving landscape. Career paths are often not straightforward. As we bridge the gap between these two worlds, we create a collaborative ecosystem where innovation thrives, ultimately accelerating advances in cancer research and improving patient outcomes.

About the author:

Sandra Carvalho is an experienced researcher currently working as a clinical translational researcher at RUBYnanomed, a biotechnology company focused on innovative cancer monitoring tools. Sandra is a biochemist, holds a PhD in molecular glycobiology in cancer and did a postdoc combining molecular oncology and nanotechnology. She transitioned from an academic career to the industrial sector and brings a unique perspective to applying scientific knowledge in clinical practice. Outside of the lab, Sandra balances her role as a devoted mother to two young children by participating in outdoor activities and family trips to explore new places together and create memorable moments.  In her free time, she enjoys reading books on self-development and maintains an active lifestyle with regular Zumba classes.