The Mass General Brigham Innovation Fellows Program was established five years ago to provide short-term, experiential career development opportunities for future leaders in health care focused on accelerating collaborative innovation between science and industry.
The program facilitates personnel exchanges between Harvard Medical School staff from Mass General Brigham hospitals and participating biopharmaceutical, device, venture capital and digital health companies. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the program, we spoke to five Innovation fellows (past and present) to learn more about their experiences.
This is 1 of 5 profiles on Innovation Fellows honoring the 5th anniversary of the Program’s launch. For more information about the program, please contact Cary Mazzone at firstname.lastname@example.org
“It’s one thing to hear about working in industry—it’s another thing to experience and witness the workings of industry firsthand,” says Ozlem Yildirim, PhD. “I definitely prefer the experience.”
The firsthand experience that Yildirim gained as a Mass General Brigham Innovation Fellow with Sanofi was not only eye-opening, it led to a change in career paths.
Yildirim became interested in the program several years ago while working as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Robert Kingston, PhD, within the department of molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
As her post-doctoral fellowship was ending, she was interested in exploring alternatives to a career as an academic scientist.
“My experiences up until then had all been in the academic setting,” she explains. “Industry was a bit of an unknown, and I wanted to get some insight into what it was like to work there and what types of positions were available.”
Having spent most of her scientific career in a fundamental research lab, she also wanted to explore a role with a stronger translational component.
In March of 2019, she began a one-year clinical research fellow project at Sanofi focused on early drug development in immuno-oncology. She was part of a team charged with taking promising preclinical agents from the lab and helping to develop them as treatments for patients.
“It was very eye-opening, very informative,” she says. “I’m still using what I learned and adding on to it.”
The two things that made the biggest impressions were the level of collaboration among team members and working efficiency within the accelerated project timelines, she says.
While there are some opportunities for collaboration in fundamental academic research, you are mostly on your own—responsible for completing your part of the work, Yildirim says.
In her role at Sanofi, however, Yildirim was in constant collaboration with other team members. “It is incomparable—the amount of information back and forth, how much your input is needed and how much you require input from others to build a protocol or a study or to resolve an issue,” she explains.
“Having [an Innovation] Fellow such as Ozlem was a brilliant idea and experience,” says Giovanni Abbadessa, MD, PhD, vice president and head of oncology early development at Sanofi Genzyme. “In our team, I try to have everyone contribute to the needs of our organization for some of their time, while they learn and/or do something particularly interesting to them for some other part of their time.”
“Ozlem’s learning curve was steeper at the beginning, but our teams rapidly gave her tasks where she could contribute,” Abbadessa says. “Over the first few months, she became a very helpful piece of the organization, contributing to both preclinical understanding of the drug assigned to her and the clinical execution of the related trial.”
Yildirim’s Fellow Project ended in February of 2020. By the following month, she had secured a full-time role at Sanofi as a senior clinical development scientist.
It was a smooth transition in her career path—one that may not have occurred if not for the opportunity provided by her Innovation Fellow experience. “It was very illuminating to see yourself and how you function in that setting,” she says.
Perhaps the biggest draw of her new role is having the chance to impact patients by helping to move drugs from the lab bench to the clinic.
Abbadessa says that Sanofi’s early oncology development has grown dramatically in quality and quantity since 2019. The team is now composed of 20+ clinicians and scientists, who support, guide, mentor each other, he explains. “Colleagues with strong pre-clinical background actively contribute to the teams’ scientific understanding of drugs yet to go to the clinic, while experienced clinicians guide them on how to support clinical exploration of more advanced assets.”
“We manage to keep an overall balance between contribution and learning, and that I believe led Ozlem to choose joining our organization as an employee,” he says. “As we project our pipeline to dramatically grow further in 2022, I look forward to hosting more fellows through our joint program.”