‘I like to be in the lab’

Susan Abbatiello, a principal consultant scientist at Waters Corp., talked to ASBMB Today about her experience working in industry for over 20 years. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Name: Susan Abbatiello

Current: Principal consultant scientist at Waters Corp.

Career path: Ph.D., Analytical Chemistry, University of Florida

Postdoctoral research: Method development, mass spectrometry and proteomics, University of Pittsburgh

First job outside of academia: Research associate at Genetics Institute (now Pfizer)

Favorite molecule or protein: “I will say my favorite protein is the first one that I worked on right out of undergrad. I worked at this company called Genetics Institute. The protein therapeutic that I worked on is called bone morphogenetic protein 2, BMP-2. And its function is to induce bone growth.”

Before going to graduate school, you worked at Genetics Institute (now Pfizer). Can you tell me about that?

Coming out of undergraduate, I felt very burned out, and I didn’t feel like I could continue going to school. So I looked for positions that were laboratory-based because I like to be in the lab, and I was offered a position at a company in Andover, Massachusetts, that made recombinant human proteins, which was a newer type of technology at the time. They gave me an entry-level position in a group that did method development. I worked there for five years. Three-and-a-half years in, I thought to myself: “I could probably go back to school and get a little deeper education in analytical chemistry.” It seemed like if I got a degree in analytical chemistry — specifically in mass spectrometry — I would be able to have a lot of options coming out of graduate school. So, I went back.

Waters Corp. is a technology company specializing in scientific instruments. Can you tell me what you do day to day?

I’m in the global research team, and my project is called charge detection mass spectrometry. We abbreviate it CDMS. That technology has not quite yet become mainstream, meaning there really aren’t a lot of commercial options for people to buy an instrument. The precise aspects of it were developed by Martin Jarrold at the University of Indiana and his company his called Megadalton. Waters bought the intellectual property rights to the technology with the goal of commercializing CDMS. What’s interesting about it to me — it’s a mass spectrometer — is it’s different than any of the types of mass spectrometers I’ve worked on in my whole career of 20 years. In this day and age, when we’re all dealing with COVID, there are new vaccines being developed that use very large structures that contain a payload, whether it’s proteins, DNA or RNA to help make our bodies stronger and more immune to viruses. The charge detection MS system is able to measure large proteins, whereas conventional mass spectrometers that are time-of-flight or the Orbitrap weren’t primarily designed for that. To detect proteins this large, it uses a slightly different mechanism. If we put them on a regular mass spectrometer, you will not be able to detect them because of the mass-to-charge range of the MS detector.

What has been one of your favorite projects?

Back around 2005, Thermo Fisher Scientific had purchased a technology — FAIMS, which stands for high field asymmetric waveform ion mobility spectrometry. I was interested in this technology because while I was in grad school some of my colleagues were working on prototypes of this technology. The instrument was really hard to use. It was the first commercial iteration. I started at Thermo in the hopes that I would be able to work on that project. So, a colleague and I began messing around with some hardware modifications. We saw that not only could it limit the junk getting into your system, but you could improve the signal-to-noise ratio of what you wanted to detect so your instrument stays cleaner for longer and you get better signal. It’s like a win-win-win. It took several years. I was in a product manager role, and I was able to work with some of the software engineers for controlling the hardware and then processing the data. I wanted to make sure that anyone that would use it could use it intuitively. When that product launched, I was very happy; it was like a technology baby. I thought that was enough of me doing for-profit work for a while, and so I left Thermo at that time, but I feel really proud of that accomplishment because it was really hard, and I feel like I made an impact.

How can students who are interested in preparing for a similar industry role?

Start as early as high school or undergrad. Try summer internships so they can work closely with people in the lab to get a feel for what it’s all about. Undergraduate internships and co-ops are something that Waters Corp. It leans heavily on, especially in research and engineering. Instrument companies and some pharmaceutical companies will hire a grad student co-op skilled in a certain area if that student could help the company.

There are some skills that I wish I had worked on earlier in my career. One is learning how to code. Whether it’s R or Python, or just being able to write macros to more efficiently do things. Raising the bar on some of the skills that are preferred or required at certain jobs is helpful, especially in instrumentation.

What advice would you give for others who are interested in industry careers?

Like what you do even if it’s not interesting. Finding a place where you can do what you do and be appreciated is another key and important aspect, I would say, in a successful career. I’ve worked at a lot of different places, and some I didn’t feel appreciated, and I decided it just wasn’t the right fit for me. I’ve just kind of moved around until I found a position where it seems to fit the best. I think it’s important to not be afraid of that. We’re not in the generation anymore where people are working 20 and 30 years at the same job. I think it’s a lot less of a red flag to try different experiences and find what works best. After one experience in industry, I never thought I would go back to a for-profit. I found something that fit better.

Also, network. Find people that are in these different areas and have frank conversations with them. You have to be happy with what you do in order to live a happy life.