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After completing her PhD in neuroscience at Columbia University, Claire Le Pichon joined the biotechnology company Genentech. She now runs her own group at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which focuses on how different types of neurons respond to injury. Her lab’s first paper investigates how mechanical damage to sensory neurons can result in neuropathic pain and was published in eLife.
We found that a protein called dual leucine zipper kinase (DLK), which initiates a damage response in injured nerves, also regulates many of the genes linked to neuropathic pain. Deleting or inhibiting this protein in mice reduced neuroinflammation in the spinal cord, and prevented the mice from developing a hypersensitivity to touch stimuli that are not normally painful.
Whilst at Genentech I was part of a team investigating whether DLK could be a drug target for neurodegenerative diseases. During this time, my husband was doing a postdoc on somatosensation and pain. As I started hearing and learning more about this field, I often wondered whether the DLK pathway could also be playing a role in the sensation of pain after nerve injury. So, when I started my lab, the first project I set up was to investigate whether DLK was involved in the tissue and behavior changes associated with neuropathic pain, which no one had studied before. My husband is actually a co-corresponding author on the eLife paper.
It was fun! We’ve actually collaborated on several papers before, back in graduate school when we first met. People often think we’re crazy for wanting to spend so much time together, but we really enjoy it.
Although I loved doing science during my PhD, I was never certain I wanted to become a PI and wanted my research to apply more directly to biomedical questions. And when this opportunity at Genentech came up, I just thought it sounded like such a cool company, with an ideal blend of basic science and drug development. My only hesitation was that moving from academia to industry would be a path of no return. But I figured I would never know if industry was for me if I didn’t give it a try. Despite having now left, I had a really great experience there.
It was actually because of a two-body problem. After his postdoc, my husband went on the academic job market and was offered a fully funded position at the NIH in Maryland. This was such a great opportunity I agreed to move with him, though not without trepidation for what this would mean for my career. I took a job working as a semi-independent research fellow, also at the NIH, and realized how much I missed the academic way of doing science. I then decided to apply for PI positions and ended up getting my current job in a different NIH institute.
One of the main differences is the intellectual freedom you get with academia, which is really the fun part and what drew me back to it. In industry you typically work on projects that are prescribed, whereas as an academic PI you get to decide the direction your lab goes in. On the other hand, the great thing in industry is the teamwork. I was amazed at how quickly projects could be completed when you work together with other experts towards a common goal. This has encouraged me to be more collaborative and open in my approach to science here at the NIH. Working on drug development projects has also influenced the type of questions that shape my research.
It was actually really tough to get papers published. I’m not sure if it was because of the journals we were submitting to, but I found that some reviewers tended to be harsher, perhaps because of the perception that in industry you have this unlimited budget and resources. We ended up with a monster of a paper that is really dense with data and supplementary figures because of all the additional experiments the reviewers requested.
Despite the excitement that comes with starting a lab, I was daunted by the feeling that success depended on me alone – it was no longer distributed across many shoulders like it is in industry. I also went through phases of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. These days I’m feeling more confident, and part of that comes from having a paper out and the respect that brings. It’s like, “oh, I can do this!”.
There are more people in the lab and more projects going on, so I think the challenge will be deciding which projects to focus on and how to build teams within the group.
It has been essential, and I have forged lots of mentor-mentee relationships over the years. Here at the NIH, I am lucky to have many mentors – some are more senior investigators, others are peers who are going through a similar career phase. It’s wonderful having a cohort of other early career researchers to turn to and compare notes with. The mentors who have probably had the biggest impact on my scientific career are my thesis advisor, Stuart Firestein, a mentor from Genentech, Joe Lewcock, and my PI at Genentech, Kimberly Scearce-Levie, who taught me a lot about being a successful woman in science. When I was leaving Genentech and uncertain what my next career step would be, she gave me a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, which was her way of telling me to go for it! And last but not least is my husband. We’ve both been on this same career path since graduate school (although my path has not been as straightforward), and are constantly learning from each other. As well as being a scientific sounding board, he’s also a great collaborator at home and an equal partner in raising our two children.
Being a parent and doing any kind of job is difficult, no matter what. I often feel I don’t have enough time to dedicate to either, and that I have to switch hats before I’ve completed a task. Perhaps us both being scientists has its own unique challenges. For example, our kids sometimes have to remind us to stop talking about work at the dinner table. On the other hand, we fully understand each other’s career needs. Also, something I didn’t realize before is that being a PI is flexible for scheduling in a way that a lot of other jobs aren’t, which can make sharing child care duties a bit easier. The biggest challenge we both face is working out how to share the parenting and fit everything in as our responsibilities at home and at work change over time.
Find a good support network. There are so many aspects of being a PI that you are not specifically trained for, and the faster you find people who can give you the advice and support you need, the better. My other piece of advice is to create a positive working environment and recruit a group of people who enjoy interacting with each other on a daily basis. And also trust yourself, trust your instincts, and enjoy the privilege of being able to go into work each day to do research!
2016 - present: Investigator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, US
2013 - 2016: Senior Research Fellow, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH, US
2008 – 2013: Senior Research Associate, Translational Neurosciences, Genentech, US
2007 - 2008: Columbia Science Fellow, Columbia University, US
2000 - 2007: PhD in Biological Sciences (Neuroscience), Columbia University, US
1996 – 1999: BSc in Natural Sciences (Pathology), Cambridge University, UK