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Principal scientist, Immunology Research
Seattle GeneticsVIEW PROFILE
When Alyson Smith, Ph.D. (MPET ’11, I ’12), was a senior in college, her mother was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. The available treatment options and drugs initially offered to her mother were discovered in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Dr. Smith, who thought, “We can do better than this.” She became determined to go to graduate school to work in drug discovery research. She spent six years at Mayo Clinic in a Ph.D. program and postdoctoral research fellowship. She’s now a principal scientist in immunology research at Seattle Genetics, doing cancer immunology research focused on antibody drug conjugates.
“I consider Mayo Clinic my home — I was raised there. It’s a special place. The facilities and technology are amazing, and the support of students is unique.”
When I was a junior in high school in Wyoming, we got a new science teacher who’d been very active in science fairs. He started a program for our school, and I got involved. Junior and senior years, my projects went to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISE) and the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. My junior year project was about materials science, and my senior year project was more biomedical — studying amyloid plaque formation in dementia.
Our high school was tiny — only 40 kids in my class, but we had a high-tech science lab and I got early exposure to great projects. I loved biomedical science and molecular biology and received a full scholarship to the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
I sent letters to research professors I’d read about on the internet, asking for opportunities to work in their labs. I got one yes from Randy Lewis, Ph.D., in the Department of Molecular Biology. So I ended up working in his lab, studying spider silk proteins and engineering them for medical applications through all four years of undergrad.
I loved what I was doing at the University of Wyoming, but it wasn’t biomedical research, which was what I was really interested in. When I was a senior in college, my mom was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. The available treatment options and drugs initially offered to her were discovered in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I thought, “We can do better than this.” I wanted to go to graduate school to work in drug discovery research.
I applied to many programs. Both of my parents are from Minnesota, so I was familiar with Mayo Clinic and its reputation when I stumbled across Mayo’s pharmacology program, which is one of the highest rated in the U.S.
When I interviewed at Mayo, I realized what an amazing, unique place it is. It was different from every other academic institution I had visited. It has high-tech capabilities and many areas of expertise grad students can tap into. Those opportunities aren’t always readily available to students elsewhere. I liked that I could study pharmacology but also work with any of the PIs.
I was at Mayo Clinic for about six years for my Ph.D. program and a postdoctoral research fellowship. I consider Mayo Clinic my home — I was raised there. It’s a special place. The facilities and technology are amazing, and the support of students is unique. Because the graduate program is small, students get a lot of one-on-one time.
The needs of the patient come first. That was important to me, and that ethos — “What do our patients need?” — will stay with me forever. It’s great to learn that early on and instill it in young scientists so they can ask themselves, “Why am I doing this? How will this change our treatment options or the lives of patients?”
Not only does everyone know the mission at Mayo Clinic, but everyone lives it in huge ways and in tiny ways. It’s what’s expected and celebrated. It permeates everyone’s daily life.
My mentors were Scott Kaufmann, M.D., Ph.D. (ONCL ’94), Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics; and Timothy Nelson, M.D., Ph.D. (I ’08, CI ’10, CV ’10), Division of General Internal Medicine. I trained in Dr. Kaufmann’s lab in my Ph.D. program, and in Dr. Nelson’s lab for my fellowship.
Sometimes in grad school training, it’s assumed that everyone will go on to become a professor, but I wasn’t well suited to academia. The only path I ever intended to pursue was drug development in industry.
After leaving Mayo Clinic, I worked for three years as a postdoctoral scientist in research and development at GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines in Hamilton, Montana. I did vaccine adjuvant research — developing molecules to include in vaccines to boost the immune response. When our NIH research funding was transferred to the University of Montana, I moved there as an assistant research professor to continue working on those contracts and developing those immune-modulating compounds. At the same time, four GlaxoSmithKline colleagues started a small biotechnology company, working to use the therapeutics we were developing at the university for other therapeutics applications. So I also went to work there, overseeing the immunology research and splitting my time between those two jobs for a couple of years. But I wanted to get back to drug discovery in biopharma and back to my cancer roots, so I was lucky to find a position in Seattle that allowed for that.
Now I’m at Seattle Genetics doing cancer immunology research focusing on antibody drug conjugates. We have two approved products for targeted delivery of super cytotoxic cancer drugs, with many more in the pipeline. I really love the work and company culture.
I want to get medicines to patients in the clinic. I’ll succeed when I can take a drug from my lab bench and make a difference to patients.
There are many career paths. Try to connect with people who use their Ph.D.s in different ways — industry, medical writers, medical science liaisons, etc. — and learn what their jobs are like. You can shape your Ph.D. program to match your post-degree intentions.
I have a wonderful family. Our sons are 8 and 6, and we love spending time with them. The Pacific Northwest is great for being outdoors — camping, hiking, skiing and riding dirt bikes.
I’m from Wyoming, a tiny western state not known for biotechnology. Yet it produced this scientist.
See past New Chapter stories here.