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Melissa Crisp: A Guide to the Science and Technology Career Trail

Adventurer, scientist, bridge builder: Several titles define SLAS member Melissa Crisp, Ph.D., and her passion for nature, scientific research and helping newcomers find their footing in industry.


Crisp doesn't hesitate when it comes to surveying new frontiers on the career trail. She organized and networked her way through her academic career and early job searches and now guides others along their paths to success. "Most people want to know how to get a job," says Crisp, a research scientist in automation at Eli Lilly and Company's research and development site in San Diego, CA, and a member of the SLAS Student and Early Career Professionals Advisory Committee. "You're not going to know how to find a job the right way, network properly or how to position yourself in your career without some help."

Crisp offered assistance by locating and matching mentors to job seekers during past SLAS International Exposition and Conference events, and did a few counseling sessions herself. She will provide a similar service for SLAS2016. "In addition to the amazing scientific program, SLAS conferences also have a lot of career-focused programming, such as workshops about how to find jobs or establish life/work balance. These are presented by respected professionals in the field," Crisp adds.

"The Society offers a slew of programs for young professionals – from opportunities that support their research, such as the SLAS Graduate Education Fellowship Grant Program, to the Tony B. Academic Travel Awards that bring young professionals to SLAS conferences, where they can present original research, expand their scientific knowledge base and begin to establish their own networks," she says. "What's interesting is that when I was a postdoc, I was attending these events myself. I have come full circle now in helping to share these opportunities for guidance with other newcomers to the field."

Crisp says that establishing a career in life sciences goes beyond getting a job. "Those starting out in the job market need to recognize that networking is something you do to enhance your career. I find this is more and more important to me, having that network. People in my network have offered input on matters as diverse as public speaking, which instrument to buy or business philosophies. Networking is one of the best things you can do for yourself and others in the profession," says Crisp, adding that if you can't help someone directly, possibly you can find someone in your network who can.

"We've all been there and know what it's like to navigate the uncertainties when taking those first steps into our career path," she says. "I like reaching out to people at that time in their careers. I'm not too far removed from it myself."

A Woodland Hike into Biology

Crisp's parents were her first guides into biology and making a path for herself. "They always told my brother, who became a civil engineer, and me that we could do anything we wanted," she says, describing how her parents set a good example.

"My parents never set limits on themselves. They built their own house from the ground up, created intricate woodworking designs, constructed and repaired furniture and more. My dad taught himself how to rebuild cars without ever seeing it done. When he wanted to start a new home project, he went to the library and figured out how to do it," she explains. This established a methodical pattern for Crisp that she uses in her scientific work today. "My parents didn't really question if they could do something but instead considered how to execute the project. I learned how to learn from them."

It's natural that she gravitated toward biology. "I love the outdoors and the natural world," says the North Carolina native. Growing up in Bryson City, NC, near Asheville, Crisp stepped into nature every time she left the house. "It is so beautiful there. From a 15-mile radius of my house, I could go whitewater rafting, mountain biking, camping or hiking along the Appalachian Trail."

During long walks as a youngster, Crisp's dad taught her to identify characteristics of native trees and plants along local trails. "My brother and I would play in the woods all the time. That was our playground," she says. "If we found something out of the ordinary, I would compose a story to explain it, typing it up on an old manual typewriter. I feel that I am still doing this as a scientist; it's just that my stories are non-fiction now," she says with a chuckle.

After graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in biology from Western Carolina University, Crisp took some time to investigate the job market. Recruited by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) through its VA Scholars Program, Crisp worked as an adjudicator for veterans' claims, scouring military and medical records to determine eligibility for disability claims. "It was a real experience for me, as I often worked with veterans face-to-face. Some had survived significant trauma and at times just wanted a compassionate ear," she says, adding that it was satisfying to help them resolve issues.

All the while, she maintained an interest in science. To help her decide whether or not to pursue graduate school, Crisp took a significant pay cut to work as a lab technician at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "The lab was focused on research targeted toward the characterization of Apolipoprotein B biogenesis and function with an ultimate goal of packaging lipophillic drugs for selective delivery to cancer cells," she explains. "I had a great supervisor, who was kind enough to let me sit in on entire graduate courses and attend seminars while there." That experience sealed the deal on her graduate school application.

After a summer living in Nice, France with a host and taking French classes, Crisp was accepted into graduate school at the University of Florida (UF) College of Medicine's Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences. "In addition to my work there, I actually spent a bit of time shadowing doctors and physician assistants in women's health, pediatric oncology and an HIV clinic," she says. In spite of this busy schedule, Crisp continued to build her knowledge of career opportunities. "Even though I stayed on the research path, I still go back to those experiences at UF as a constant motivator in my current work," she adds.

"Many graduate students aren't connected enough to know what's out there. My approach when I was at UF was to get involved in a group that brought speakers from industry to us," Crisp says.

Her reward for this intensive study of the job market was a postdoc position at the Jupiter, FL, campus of The Scripps Research Institute Department of Molecular Therapeutics, setting up 1536-well assays in their state-of-the art high-throughput screening facility. This move had the greatest impact in helping her bridge the gap between academia and industry.

"Scripps is an academic institution, but they have translational labs that function much like industry labs and have built successful collaborations with a number of industry partners, including pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Pfizer," she explains.

At Scripps Florida, Crisp also had the opportunity to participate in the launch of an outreach program for postdoctoral students. She once again found herself bringing in speakers and creating resources to help post docs adjust to their new environment. The program at Scripps Florida was linked to a similar and well-established program at Scripps La Jolla.

Working at Scripps also introduced Crisp to the Society of Biomolecular Sciences (SBS, which merged with the Association of Laboratory Automation, ALA, to form SLAS). Her supervisor at Scripps Florida, Peter Hodder, Ph.D., author of several papers published in the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS), which is one of two SLAS MEDLINE-indexed scientific journals, connected her with many people in SLAS. "He encouraged us to make the most of SBS conferences, by giving podium and poster presentations, attending short courses and networking as much as possible," Crisp says. "He linked me with many of the people in SLAS that I know today."

The connection also served as an introduction to automation and its role in drug discovery. "I was able to apply the automation knowledge I picked up from SLAS to secure my position at Eli Lilly and advance our automation work there," she explains.

Supporting Others Through Life Sciences

Crisp's work at Eli Lilly blends biology with automation, which in turn supports other scientists' research by increasing throughput and producing consistent high-quality data. "We collaborate with other scientists to help them develop and automate assays, and we continually develop ways to minimize bottlenecks in our processes. This helps us produce and screen more molecules using automated systems to find therapeutics faster," she says, adding, "My goal is always to help get us there faster."

Her biology background is quite helpful in this endeavor. "As a liaison between the scientists and the engineering aspect of our work, I can interpret and understand what the scientists are doing and how they are putting together their experiments," explains Crisp.

Crisp's work requires her to bear in mind all aspects of how the systems she develops will support the scientific process. "I don't just consider how to automate an assay protocol, I have to think about how it will work biologically. If we are working with live cells, I have to think about what we are going to put them through in an automated system," she explains. "Are the cells going to be viable and respond appropriately when we optimize the mechanical process? There is an advantage to understanding both sides."

To keep up with the latest innovations in automation, Crisp relies on the network she developed through SLAS. "SLAS Past President Dan Sipes at The Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) is here in San Diego. He has been helpful to me in my search for new technologies and has given our team several tours at GNF to look at their automated systems and the new technologies they are engineering. He is always open to doing that. Many people with whom I have connected through SLAS open their labs, ideas and philosophies to me."

Crisp recently got a green light to create the Lilly Industry Bridge outreach program to give area educational institutions, such as the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and Scripps LaJolla, exposure to biotech and pharma companies in Biotech Beach. "After starting at Lilly, I met a Scripps post-doctoral student at an SLAS conference, who told me about their Industry Bridge Program. I brought this idea to our chief scientific officer (CSO) at Lilly and set up an outreach program. Our program completes the handshake, if you will, with the collegiate programs. We later extended an invitation to host UCSD, which has a similar organization in place," says Crisp. "We also had a spin-off with other groups bringing in undergraduates as well. I've received so much positive feedback from students saying it actually helped them solidify their decisions to follow paths toward industry."

Other big news for Crisp is the expansion of the Lilly Biotechnology Center in San Diego, an endeavor in which she also will be involved. This additional 175,000 square feet of working space will allow for closer collaboration among Lilly professionals in discovery chemistry, research technologies and biotechnology, which will help accelerate the discovery of new medicines within the company's core therapeutic areas, including immunology. "The expansion is projected to be complete in 2016," says Crisp. "This is a big step forward for the automation team and the site as a whole."

Taking Time to Recharge

As one might expect, Crisp does not take downtime away from the lab lying down and relaxing. Instead, she's off fearlessly launching a paddleboard in San Diego Bay, snapping photos using her new amazing 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens or organizing annual trips snowboarding in Mammoth Mountain or hiking Mt. San Jacinto in Palm Springs. She also enjoys volunteering for the San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering and annual trips with other Lilly colleagues to Tijuana, Mexico to construct houses for families through the Build A Miracle nonprofit program.

"I love to be outside doing just about anything, from hiking the nearby landscapes to mountain biking on the many great trails around San Diego or paddle boarding here in the Bay," says Crisp, whose board excursions offer prime viewing for jelly fish, sting rays and leopard sharks. "I'm a little bit of a daredevil," she laughs. "I've been gliding and jumped out of a couple of planes. I like to go on adventures – that is what recharges me."

Her current location in California is ideal for outdoor adventures. After living in North Carolina and Florida, she says, "living some place beautiful was part of the design!"

January 11, 2016