The Mix Tape: Ep. 8 — When Passions Collide: A Biotech Leader’s Unexpected Career Path

Everyone's life science career is full of twists and turns, but Sweta Girgenrath's journey is particularly winding. From the lab to the classroom and back again, not to mention traveling halfway across the world to settle in the US, Girgenrath recounts her career until now and what the future holds with May Li, Mix Talent's R&D Recruiting Team Lead. Sweta Girgenrath holds over 15 years of experience spanning academia and pharmaceutical industry working at the interface of the complex pathophysiology of rare and ultra-rare muscle / cardiac disease and therapy development.

Transcription

Natalie Taylor:

Welcome to The Mix Tape.

Valerie McCandlish:

Welcome to The Mix Tape.

Natalie Taylor:

I’m Natalie.

Valerie McCandlish:

And I’m Valerie, and it’s my favorite time of the year. It’s just getting right into it. It’s soup season, well, it’s been soup season, but I just love fall in Ohio. It’s the best time of the year. I love when it starts to get cool. Even though you can enjoy soup year round, I particularly love it now. This weekend we’re having a souper bowl.

Natalie Taylor:

Very nice.

Valerie McCandlish:

S O U P E R.

Natalie Taylor:

Love that.

Valerie McCandlish:

And all my friends are bringing a different kind of soup and we’ll determine which one reigns supreme.

Natalie Taylor:

That’s awesome. That’s a great idea.

Valerie McCandlish:

I am so excited. And it’s not often that we get to talk about our guest’s passions outside of the lab or outside of biotech and life sciences, but today’s guest is a cook herself, and we’ll get into that a little bit later. But today our guest, Sweta Girgenrath joins us and she is the head of cardiovascular and neuromuscular therapeutic areas at Entrada Therapeutics, which has been a client of ours for the past couple of years. And we’re so excited to hear her conversation.

Natalie Taylor:

We are. And Sweta brings over 15 years of experience spanning the academic and pharmaceutical industry. She is a mother of two, a grandmother of one. And it’s so cute because she’s married to her grad school buddy. She is a scientist and she’s a teacher at heart and has loved her interactions with all of her students.

She stayed connect with them and one of them even works with her now. So, that’s really cool.

Valerie McCandlish:

Yeah. And for most of her professional career, she’s worked in the rare disease space, which if you’ve been a long time listener of The Mix Tape Podcast, you know that we’re really passionate about rare disease here at Mixed Talent. And she has spent a significant time working in the ultra-rare disease space, which has been really cool to see her land at Entrada because of the work that they do. So I know that she’s really hoping that someday she’ll be able to bring something to the clinic for the patients that Entrada serves.

Natalie Taylor:

So today, Sweta joins our teammate May Li, who is a recruiting team lead here at Mixed Talent for our R&D division. And we’re looking forward to hearing their discussion. So without further ado, we’ll turn it over to May and Sweta.

May Li:

So Dr. Sweta Girgenrath, it is so good to have you here with us today.

Sweta Girgenrath:

Thank you.

May Li:

We’d love to learn … yeah, welcome. We’d love to learn a little bit about your story, your life story, and your career. And I’ll just start with some questions that I’m sure everyone’s going to be excited to hear about. So maybe the first question would be why and when did you choose to become a scientist?

Sweta Girgenrath:

That’s a great question, May. I don’t even remember when that was, but I do remember that I really loved biology of all sciences. I was a little bit scared of chemistry, but biology was something I really loved. And I think almost in high school I loved the organ biology right organ system and I realized that you learn a subject best when you are really able to teach it to somebody. So I basically hijacked my little cousins to teach them about organ systems. And I, that gave me a real good feel for what I was talking about and how neat this whole system is. And also what was intriguing for me is that, what a great engineering system this whole organ system has to be that each cell, if it’s working it, you have a complete system, but if anything goes wrong, even one protein or one cell, you have a huge consequence. So everything has to really synchronize and work in harmony and that was fascinating. I think that was my thought of loving science.

May Li:

Well, that’s incredible. Sounds like at a very young age you were very curious and you also found that you had some natural talent for teaching and you had a captive audience within your family. Sounds wonderful.

Sweta Girgenrath:

Not sure about that, but I did.

May Li:

Did you have a role model or anyone that influenced your decision to work in science?

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yeah, so my family has, my uncles and aunts, they have been always in science somewhere or the other, so I always got inspirations from them. I did have a friend who was few years older than me and she was also a zoology major and I used to go and work with her. She would help me to understand a subject or chapter and that really had a big influence to play in my life, this discussion with her. And so yeah, I mean I always tended to go towards biology and more zoology and she did play a role I do remember of that.

May Li:

That’s wonderful. So was it around high school or college?

Sweta Girgenrath:

It was high grade, 12, first year. So she was like was master student when I was an undergrad, so I would always go and seek her out. She was in the neighborhood and we would both discuss about cardiac system or nephrology or anything for that matter. So yeah, she did play a role a lot.

May Li:

So when other kids were going to the movies or going out to parties, you were discussing science?

Sweta Girgenrath:

I did both. I did both. I think I did do some fun stuff too, but she was also part of our fun group. So it was a little bit of both.

May Li:

Okay, wonderful. So at some point you decided to go and get your PhD?

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yes.

May Li:

Did somebody influence you in that regard or?

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yes. So that’s an interesting story. That was not something, I went straight from undergrad to grad school. I had a big break. After my undergrad, then I was in India. I got married by pretty typical system of arranged marriage. And then I came with my ex-husband to this country. He was in grad school and I came with my one year old daughter. And I wasn’t in school, but I very quickly realized that I did want to go back to school and I really had very little money to even apply for GRE exams and stuff like that. But I did and could only apply to one school and went into Master’s program at Northeastern. Correct. And then I ended up working in my mentor, PhD mentor’s lab who was, I still consider a guru in physiology, really a very hardcore physiologist. And he really influenced me.

I started with masters and soon enough I switched into PhD with him. And I just, it’s an interesting little note that in up until undergrad I did not like anything to do with muscle physiology. I actually did not read that chapter going through my undergrad and ended up in a muscle lab and ended up doing muscle physiology for a living almost. Right. But he was a big influence at the time that I told you organ system fascinated me. Physiology fascinated me, and he really brought the whole system at the level of nuts and bolts. So it really made a lot of sense how the whole organ systems worked, not only in humans but going up the species. So he played a huge role in me to switch over to PhD.

May Li:

Wonderful. And at what point did you start to focus in on rare diseases and ultra-rare diseases?

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yeah, so my, as I said, PhD was in muscle physiology, but that was a very hardcore muscle physiology lab, muscle biomechanics lab. And as I was going through my training, I realized I loved the physiology part of it, but I really like more of the signaling, how does the signaling molecules work in order, for example, for the muscles to contract. So with that in mind, when I chose my postdoc, I went actually to, again, a muscle biology lab, but more with the molecular focus. But I was still not, was in the rare disease.

Then during my postdoc years, in my last postdoc, I ended up at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, which is gone now, but it was a mecca of muscle biologists, all very pioneers of muscle field were working in there. And I went there and I was in the lab of professor or Dr. Jeff Miller and he was working with, in Duchenne muscular dystrophy models. And as I entered the lab, he had just started, he had brought in a model of this ultra-rare disease and I got that project totally by chance. And as I worked in that rare disease model, tried to understand more of the disease mechanisms, I realized how complicated it was and how different, even within muscle diseases, how different two different diseases can be. And I chose to, then as I went on to set up my own lab, Jeff was very collaborative in letting me take this whole project and I started my lab working in this ultra-rare disease.

May Li:

So you really just kept on powering through your career and taking on, digging deeper into the subject matter that you’re fascinated with. And then you started your own lab. That’s a pretty incredible undertaking. And how was that? How was that? Did you run into any kind of challenges or did you have any doubts about yourself? In the beginning?

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yes. Many a times, right? I mean, wasn’t looking for this position. I knew that I knew while even as a postdoc, that I really loved teaching and I loved science. I could not go for either or, but I was also in Boston area and all the universities which have both of these components equally weighted is very hard to get into as a faculty. And so even as this disposition just showed up on one of these bulletin boards where I was finishing my postdoc, and one of my colleagues then showed me this and said, “Hey, this is almost says it’s Sweta Girgenrath written on it.” I said, “Okay, it does.” A lot of things I have done is there, so let me just, I’ll just tried to apply for it. So I did. And then my chair of the department where I joined was XBBRI where I was working.

And I went and shared my CV with her and she was like, “Okay, this is good, but it’s very competitive.” I said, “That’s okay, this is my CV.” And she looked at it and said, “Well, it’s really good, but it’s very competitive.” I said, “That’s fine, and don’t expect me to do any, I cannot do anything for this.” I said, “That’s totally fine.” And I didn’t expect anything. And then eventually after a few days, surprisingly, I was asked for references. I said, “Okay, this is getting real.” I was shortlisted. So I was like, “Okay.” I went in again talking to her. She’s like, “Yeah, I know that you’ve been shortlisted, but don’t expect I can help me with it.” No problems. Don’t do that. Okay, I’ll give it. And I kept moving along and interestingly I moved along to the two people final. I didn’t expect that.

And I think the reason I reached to that level was I did bring both of those. That I used to love teaching. I kept teaching through my grad school. I first to teach because it was necessary to do extra classes. I had a single child, I mean, I was a single mother with a child, but also I loved teaching. And when I was postdoc, I was still teaching. Whenever I would get a chance to teach in a lab course across the … I had to go an hour to do that, I would do it. So I had enough teaching background as well as I had research. So I kind of brought both of it and I got that position. So yeah, it was pretty challenging to start that lab because I always questioned how could I get this? For a long time it was, this is by chance that I got this position. But overall, over time I realized there are some skills that I bring to the table.

One was teaching, I loved teaching at, I generated a course of my own, which was muscle biology for health and disease. So three months of muscle teaching. And I was curious, also challenged that who will like that course, but it turned out a pretty good course and people did like it a lot. Yeah, no.

And also as far as challenge, you said, I was given a huge empty lab, so I said, “Okay, here it is. Go figure, do something.” And what I would … As taught my students, I made sure that they also know that aspect of it, what it means to just start a lab or what it means to just write a grant to sustain your lab because those are not inherently easy. And nobody know PI actually makes you sit down and teach that aspect of it, that what would it mean to become an independent PI? It’s lot more than your signs, how you sell your signs, how do you strategize your signs, and how do you do budgeting with the money?

So I mean, all those things you are not taught in your grad school. So it’s important, I would say, to keep that in mind. And whenever you get a chance to learn those aspects of the business side of things also, it’s very important I think. And people should keep in mind when they’re thinking of starting their own labs.

May Li:

That’s fantastic. And so eventually you transitioned right over to the biotech and now you’re head of cardiovascular and neuromuscular therapies at Entrada. So how was that transition made? Was it difficult for you to leave the teaching environment?

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yes. I mean difficult and not. So, because I worked at … I mean a lot of things really, and that’s important for everybody plan something, but then life just happens. You get into some experience that you never, And in 207 or 208 or even 210, if you had asked that, “Would you go into bio pharma?” I would’ve said, “No.” Or in fact, this question was asked when I was PI that have you considered industry? And I said, “Not yet.” Was my answer. And the reason it was not yet is that I was working in a ultra-rare disease, and that gave me a huge opportunity. When you are working in this ultra-rare disease, the community is small, so everybody is very collaborative because people know that if you have to push therapy to the clinic, you really need the whole village. Correct.

So in that, I got to know the patient advocacy groups very well. I also got to know the clinicians, the top clinicians in the field who were also working towards this disease. I got to know small and large bio techs who might have had some interest. So I was really showcasing this ultra-rare disease to bigger and smaller bio pharma. And that gave me a good appreciation of what it is to work in this other site. So I was familiar what is needed, what are the challenges? So the lack of word here, what are the daily things that you have to do in order to take a drug forward? So I had a little bit of that idea and parallelly, because I was working in ultra, ultra-rare disease, it was very challenging to keep this research always fully funded. I was extremely lucky. I kept my funding going, but most of this funding came through patient advocacy groups and stuff.

So I realized that I was spending a whole lot of time to be just writing grants, then doing the signs, and also was realizing that that money stream is very important. Otherwise, no matter what I would like to achieve, I wouldn’t be able to do that. And then just opportunity happened. I was thinking that I am very good at preclinical research. I love translational research. And I met a colleague in the space who was at Pfizer, and she basically asked me if I would be interested in something like this. And that opportunity was quite meaningful. It would’ve allowed me to look out for my postdoc and my student as well as get into the bio pharma, working in muscle research, working, still, setting up all the things that I was doing, and do more translational research and bring it to the clinic. So it made me realize that this alternative pathway was also meaningful for what I wanted to do to bring something to the clinic.

May Li:

That’s wonderful. So ultimately you’re seeing all your passions just come to closer to fruition and just following a natural path that it takes as a scientist. It’s incredible.

Sweta Girgenrath:

I sometimes think it’s, I’ve been fortunate for that.

May Li:

Well, I’m sure you work very hard, but your passion also, that translates to everyone. And what would be a typical day be for you now? Do you still have a chance to teach or do you work in the lab now? What’s your time spent on?

Sweta Girgenrath:

So when I was a new faculty at VU, I was, at one point my chair said, “So are you still working in the lab?” I said, “Yes.” Because soon you may not get chance. And I said, “What are you talking about? I will continue to work in the lab.” So yes, I have moved away from the lab significantly. I still love actual bench science as a result. I love to be where I am, my team and what they’re doing. So I’m pretty closely connected, but I’m not on the bench. And my guess is that they would not want me on the bench, but I am very closely connected to the data that is being generated and still go and sit on the microscope and look at those data that they are generating. So yes, no, I do that less so more I would like to do more at some point I will.

May Li:

Sure. And what about teaching? Have you …

Sweta Girgenrath:

Teaching? Yes, I had been teaching still via my last job a little bit. I haven’t done it here in last couple years because I think I joined Entrada, where Entrada was really evolving with this all muscle biology and lot of exciting work. And really in the life cycle where we were, it needed much more attention to take things forward. But once things get little bit more streamlined, I would probably, again go back because I still look out for those opportunities to teach that. That gives me a lot of happiness to be honest.

May Li:

Well that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. So Sweta, looking forward maybe in the next five or 10 years, what do you hope to accomplish in terms of your work and your professional life?

Sweta Girgenrath:

So what do I want to accomplish? I want to bring something to the clinic and I’m working as a part of a team to do that right now. So yeah, I’m hoping that it goes through and I can bring something to the clinic. And ultimately I would also want to work in MDC1A. That’s the ultra-rare disease that I worked for. So I try to work with my colleagues in the field who have started, small bio techs, or are just pursuing academic research. So whenever I can, I help with the research in MDC1A, but would want to take more active participation if I can.

May Li:

That’s incredible. So I think we’re getting about close to time here, and I know you’re extremely busy, so I’m so grateful to have a few minutes that you spent with us today. So in closing, I want to ask you, what is your favorite interview question?

Sweta Girgenrath:

My favorite? So that I was thinking about what can be my favorite in interview question. So one thing is that I can tell you what is not.

May Li:

Okay.

Sweta Girgenrath:

Well what do you see happening in five years? The answer is I don’t know. So because just by my own career path, I couldn’t have told you what five years, hence it’ll look like. So I rather like a question that what excites me most in a given career and what do I want to see it evolve too. That’s probably a better question for me.

May Li:

Wonderful. Yeah. Well I think you have shared with us what excites you, what has been exciting you all along. And you did ask, tell us a little bit about where you see yourself in five or 10 years. So we’re so excited to continue to follow you. You’ve contributed so much to the field and even though you’re not, might not be doing academic teaching, I’m sure you’re speaking a lot at conferences and publishing abstracts, so you’re still teaching in a different way.

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yes. I mean teaching also happens in your team, in your group. So whenever … I’m in the place where we bring the muscle expertise. We have lots of expert colleagues in other fields. So if I can help with my knowledge, I’m always happy to do it. So, yeah.

May Li:

Wonderful, wonderful. And so the last question, Sweta, is what is your favorite song?

Sweta Girgenrath:

Oh my. What’s my favorite song? So there are many. I don’t have a particular favorite song, but I can tell you about a song, which whenever I hear I love it still. So it’s a song, which when I was in school I heard first that’s Abba’s, you can dance, Dancing Queen. So I really like that song. So that’s when I liked it. And very recently it was part of somebody’s wedding, my sister’s wedding actually. And I said, “Oh my God, that song excites me so much.” So, that I would say that’s one of my favorite all-time favorites.

May Li:

So wonderful. So wonderful. And I’m surely going to check out your Aliquots Catering business that you have on the side. It sounds like the food is delicious and healthy.

Sweta Girgenrath:

Yeah, it’s a passion. It’s somewhat therapeutic, doing something different when we are not constantly thinking about science. That’s also a passion I share with my husband. So it’s nice to be able to still find, it’s hard to find time, but when we do, we really enjoy it.

May Li:

Wonderful. So thank you so much for sharing your time with us and your stories. And we are so inspired and I’m sure a lot of people, younger scientists would be love to hear about what we have talked about today.

Sweta Girgenrath:

One last thing I’ll say for my younger colleagues, believe in yourself. And I mean, good science happens in both sides, academic and industry. And so if you were to think of a career path, I think just follow your passion. Science will and will follow.

May Li:

Follow your passion. Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful chatting with you.

Sweta Girgenrath:

Thank you. Thank you so much.

May Li:

Yeah, we hope to see you more in the news. Thank you so much and in the scientific community. Thank you.

Sweta Girgenrath:

This was fun. Thank you.

Valerie McCandlish:

Thank you so much to May and Sweta for joining us on The Mix Tape.

Natalie Taylor:

I loved hearing about Sweta’s career journey and just kind of hearing about some of the challenges she faced and kind of how she got to where she is today. I think that’s always great for listeners too, to hear about others’ experiences to learn from and get some inspiration and ideas from.

Valerie McCandlish:

Absolutely. And I think it’s so special when somebody’s career comes together and intersects at all of their passions. And I think this is a really beautiful example of that. So how cool for Sweta to be leading these therapeutic areas at Entrada, and I know we’ve done this a few episodes, but again, it’s just wonderful to see more and more examples of people who are really passionate about the work that they do, caring for the patients in this world who are in need of really amazing therapies.

So not only is she doing that, but as we alluded earlier, she is really passionate about food and that she cooks and she’s a cook with her husband and they together share this passion so much so that they created a catering company called Aliquots, and Aliquots for all of you science fans out there is the plural of Aliquot, which in science means a small portion of a large hole. So they specialize in small plates and they love to cook so much at their houses, become a central place for all parties. And because she and her husband both work in the rare disease space, they’ve actually recently started to have a tasting open house on Rare Disease Day, which most of you know is the last day in February. So they host that at their house. It’s been a huge success and really cool for them to bring together people from their community and educate them about rare disease along with good food and wine of course. And if you’re in the Boston area, you should totally connect with her so that you can maybe get in on the action.

Natalie Taylor:

Yes, absolutely. I wish we were a little bit closer because I think that’s incredible. And if you guys remember here at Mixed Talent, we’re very passionate about the rare disease space and we do our rare disease hero campaign every year. So that was a really cool thing to learn about her. And I wish that we could have her, we could fly her in for our rare disease event as well. But I’d also like to point out her awesome contribution to the song added to The Mix Tape of Dancing Queen. That is a classic and I’m so excited that we have it on the playlist. I’m kind of surprised I don’t have it already, but thankfully Sweta brought it to the playlist.

Valerie McCandlish:

We’ll get it added.

Natalie Taylor:

Yes.

Valerie McCandlish:

We are nearing the end of our season. We’ve got just a couple episodes left, so thank you for everyone who is a first time listener, a longtime listener, and we hope that you enjoy what’s yet to come. And with that, thanks for being in the mix. We’ll see you next week.

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