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How GDMC’s Brian Liau is fostering tomorrow’s gene therapy talent through a biotech mentorship programme


Thu, 03/21/2024 - 12:00


As Associate Director of Analytical Development at Genetic Design and Manufacturing (GDMC), Brian Liau leads a small team that develops critical tests which are used to ensure the quality and safety of their gene therapy pharmaceuticals. He is also a mentor under SGInnovate’s Helix Immersion Programme, and hopes to assist aspiring scientists to transition from academia to industry.  

We caught up with Brian to find out why he believes mentorship is less about altruism, and more about pragmatism; how telling your own “story” is an overlooked but critical skillset for anyone embarking on a Deep Tech career.  

1. How did you come to be involved with GDMC?

I was initially attracted to the life sciences because of its potential to alleviate human suffering and improve human life – I found that a very compelling narrative. I thought that science could empower me to make groundbreaking discoveries, but I’ve since realised the idea that a lone individual can make a substantial impact is somewhat naïve – it’s more of a collective effort. I’m happy to say that at GDMC, we have close-knit teams working with our partners to manufacture gene therapies that have the potential to become highly valuable medicines if they make it through regulatory approval. Our work today could make a significant difference to the man on the street tomorrow.  

I admit that I found academic life challenging. The pressures on academic researchers are varied and substantial, and I found the sense of focus brought on by an industry job to be a breath of fresh air. That said, the academic environment teaches important transferable skills, including writing and presenting technical information in a way that lay audiences find engaging and compelling. 

READ: Diversity in biotech: How one scientist’s quest for impact took her beyond the lab

2. How does mentorship help young scientists and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole?  

Many who consider a career in industry don’t necessarily have a clear idea of how work is distributed, and how teams are organized. In academia, the scientist is responsible for everything, whereas roles are often more specialized in industry. For example, although my team develops safety tests, it is another team’s responsibility to conduct these tests on the final pharmaceutical product. Mentorship helps people to better understand industry expectations and work patterns, which in turn helps them to determine whether this aligns with their career expectations. 

Mentoring also helps young scientists to work out where they fit in in terms of their skill set and personality, and to discover what value they can bring to companies. 

Brian can often be found working in the lab alongside his team. It’s part of his mentorship ethos - leading by example. 

In my view, mentorship is an essential part of what makes established businesses successful. It is vital for bringing in new ideas, reducing employee turnover, and ensuring a company’s sustainability. This pragmatism is a big part of why mentorship exists, and I think it is important to recognise that mentorship isn’t necessarily always altruistic.  

On a personal level, being a mentor helps to build your network. As a mentor, it is attractive to think you will always be the more knowledgeable individual, and your mentee will always be more junior. But in real life, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the person you mentor is brilliant and special, and you might want to call on them for a favour sometime.  

READ: How developing medical “game-changers” gives these scientists meaning

In my view, mentorship is an essential part of what makes established businesses successful. It is vital for bringing in new ideas, reducing employee turnover, and ensuring a company’s sustainability.

Brian Liau

3. Why did you choose your current mentee, Sizhun Li, and how are you structuring his traineeship?

As part of our interview process, we ask candidates to go home and write answers to a problem set that we give them. Sizhun’s resume was excellent, and his answers were possibly the best I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t be happier. 

Brian and Sizhun in the lab. 

Our training plan is designed to give Sizhun as broad a view as possible of what we do in the analytics team, split into four key areas over the year. This quarter, he’s working with adeno-associated viral vectors – that is, non-pathogenic viruses commonly used as a tool in gene therapy. Later in the year, he’ll move on to nucleic acid therapy, a type of treatment that uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to treat or prevent diseases.

At GDMC, it is important to us that our staff are cross-trained in different technical areas. That means getting a thorough understanding of what other teams do and how all the parts of our process fit together. That way, they generally find it easier to work with the other teams.  

4. What advice do you have for young people looking to move from academia to industry?

  • Work hard on your resume – a compelling resume takes many iterations to get right. When I initially tried transitioning to industry, I got nowhere. I realised it was because my resume was written very much like an academic “curriculum vitae”, which is a laundry list of all the things I’d ever done without attempting to convey a clear direction or narrative. The ideal resume should tell a story about how your various experiences relate to each other, and how they added value to each organization you worked for. Yes, you worked for this firm and on this project. But what was your input? What were the outcomes? If you can put a dollar value on those outcomes, so much the better!  

  • Make sure you understand the job description and what the company is looking for – and that you can confidently explain how everything you’ve accomplished in your previous roles fits these requirements. This may entail doing some homework to research technical terms. What you don’t want is for an interviewer to ask you why you’d be the perfect fit and you don’t know how to answer it.  

  • Consider applying to our firm! We’re always keen to evaluate promising talent. People’s experiences with startups vary widely, but they are never boring. If you’re a young person (or young at heart) with manageable commitments, I recommend you take the risk and go for it. One thing we know is that risk is correlated with reward. And if it turns out you don’t like working for a startup, that’s a useful piece of information that will help you determine what you want from your career. 

Keen to explore opportunities in Biotech? Click here to find out how you can get started.  


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