The statements made in this blog post by Dr. Ralph Hazlewood reflect his personal views and are not representative of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Dr. Ralph Hazlewood currently works as a project manager for Regeneron, a pharmaceutical company based in New York. We had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Hazelwood to discuss his journey towards the biotech industry.
We’d like to start off by asking about yourself and your upbringing?
I grew up in St. Croix. I did spend some of my childhood in New York after hurricane Hugo, but I spent most of my life in St. Croix. I went to school at Seventh Day Adventist School and got my love of learning there. I did my undergraduate studies at UVI. It was a personal and strong choice for me rather than a large university on the mainland. I wanted to be educated by UVI and see how that degree and experience can provide me with better opportunities. It was an opportunity to do great things, and there I expanded. I did grad school at the University of Iowa and my Post-Doctoral at Vanderbilt before working at Regeneron.
What inspired or led you to pursue a career within biotech?
I knew that I wanted to do research and that was from an experience at UVI. It was a plant physiology course, and we were exposed to a rare plant called Solanum canocarpum. It is a rare plant, and I had a chance to do research with it with Dr. Alice Stanford. It was an opportunity to do the research and guide future opportunities and policies for this plant. Eventually, it was listed in the endangered species list. From there, I was sold on doing genetic research. In graduate school, I got involved in human genetic research. That experience, in doing research, finding a gene leading to blindness, and finding ways to help treat it made me interested in what was next. When I was in postdoc, I did research in repurposing drugs in new applications and looking at how already federally-approved medicine could help treat things like glaucoma. From bench to clinic, that is what made me interested.
What is a day like in your role as a manager in Regeneron?
There really isn’t a typical day. In my current role, I’m a program manager. I manage the research activities of the ophthalmology group all the way from pre-clinical research activities to first in human physical activities. When I say manage, it’s operation and scientific management on what we do on the bench and how we move it in the pipeline. It’s a huge collaborative and interfacing activity. I work with bench scientists and identifying bottlenecks when research is available. Making critical decisions in how to move programs forward. I could be tracking a reagent or protein and moving forward as in-depth as understanding or working with other stakeholders in pushing their programs forward. I also have meetings with senior management as well. Another component is reaching out to collaborators and discussing data. There are a lot of meetings all day, every day. But every day is different. It’s managing each program to help it move along the pipeline.
What have you found rewarding or exciting about your work at Regeneron?
I get to work with a lot of smart people. I finally get the sense of what is next. I get to have the 10,000-foot view to see the whole picture. From pre-clinical to animal models and nominating it to go into clinics. Working with all the people in drug discovery and being a part of the process. Being able to contribute as the programs progress is extremely rewarding. One thing that I really do like at Regeneron as well is that there aren’t very many egos so to speak. You go to a meeting, and everyone is able to contribute. Everyone has a voice, and it’s welcoming for the team.
For UVI students considering a career in biotech, what were some resources that were the most helpful for you?
I am a scientist first. Honing my research skills going in and getting the Ph.D., it’s not something you want to take lightly. It’s a commitment to a research program and to the research. If you are on the fence, I would not necessarily move forward. If you know you want to do it, honing those soft skills really helps when you make that transition into biotech. Soft skills like communication, how you elaborate, can you be a team player? Communication on how you greet people, but also presentation skills, talking to people on the phone. It’s important to show how you know your science but also in getting buy-in to push research forward. Honing those transferrable skills is key. On the research side, find a project that you can hop into and really get excited about. Ph.D. is a knowledge-creating mechanism. The act of creating that knowledge and putting it out there is a great thing to do. Find your passion, and be open to new experiences, be your authentic self. I remember when I was searching about whether I wanted to go to med school or graduate school, I knew I wanted to help people. From that first research experience in studying that plant, I was hooked, and I loved to do that so much more than other pursuits. It was one of the best decisions because that drives my passion to make discoveries and helping people.
Thinking back to when you became interested in STEM, what programs or resources do you wish were available at the time?
I know one thing that I wish was there was access to more mentors. Mentors in the sense of having more mentors where you can learn of different opportunities, learning what is out there. Some of those resources were there, but not extensively. We have several great departments within the USVI government, like the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, that have an impact on the ecosystem. Would have been great if scientists and others had more synergy with the students there to increase their knowledge and awareness that the research is there. I think what you are doing with VISTA+ is great. I know there were conversations on having a med school, and that has had some leg. But more opportunities to access mentors would have been great for my younger self.
What are things that students should know or expect if they wish to pursue a Ph.D.?
They Definitely should think about what they like to do. What type of research are you interested in? You can be in STEM, but it’s a big bucket. You can explore research on the engineering side, biology, etc. There is not just making research for new medicine. There is research like I did at UVI in understanding plant diversity and the ecosystem there. Finding what you like to do and what interests you helps. That helps you open the doors to opportunities. Right after I graduated UVI, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do med school or grad school. I did human genetic research in St. Louis, and that solidified that I wanted to do genetic research. Having those experiences helped me make the decision to go on this path rather than another. Find your true north in understanding your interest and what you want to do. Most importantly, explore. I didn’t think I’d be interested in ophthalmology but being in a position to learn the genetics, physiology, pharmacology, molecular and cell biology gave me a holistic picture. I saw that it was for me. Find your true North and don’t be afraid to find your interest. It’s four, five, six, sometimes seven years that you devote to the project, and you wouldn’t want to devote that time to something you are not motivated about.
How has your career within biotech impacted your life outside of work?
I definitely have more opportunities now that I’m not in the training stage. I can really hone my skills and my impact. I’m big on giving back, talking with students, doing seminars at different professional meetings. It really helps that I can give back and provide an avenue or framework to help those looking to advance themselves or are striving for more. I have access to a whole new group and network that I can tap into and impart or communicate. I learn more as I progress in my career and try to do my part to help the younger generation.
What are the top skills you encourage young adults to develop if they are interested in the field of biotech?
Definitely soft skills. It may be specific where you want to go. In biotech, if you’re on the research side, learning how to ask questions. Knowing how to see a problem, analyze, and be able to formulate questions. Active listening is also very important and good to learn no matter what field you are in. Taking apart a problem and using experience to solve that problem. In my case, it was also important to know Bio 101 which helped me pinpoint where I wanted to go and understanding mechanisms of the body.
What is your favorite USVI dish?
I love bun and cheese. The first thing I do when I get back is go to Daniel’s Bakery and get bun and cheese. I really used to love Island Dairies before they closed for passion fruit juice. Can’t really get those anymore.