Thinking outside the lab

Natalie LaFranzo, a graduate alumna who earned her doctorate in chemistry, is part of a growing pipeline of advanced STEM graduates who pursue careers outside of academia.

During Natalie LaFranzo’s first days on campus as a doctoral student in chemistry, she sat in on an orientation session where a presenter stressed the need for students to stay focused, nearly exclusively, on their research. Something about that advice didn’t sit well with LaFranzo.

“I left that meeting, walked over to the athletics department, introduced myself, and they asked me to start coaching the cheerleading team,” she recalls. “As much as you should focus in grad school, having outside interests can be immensely valuable.” Coaching evening cheer practice helped LaFranzo, who herself had been a cheerleader throughout college, deal with rough lab days in graduate school. She continues to work with the team as head coach, even after graduating with a doctoral degree in 2013 and pursuing a career in the biotechnology industry. And she credits much of her success to the diverse experiences she gained during her time at WashU.

LaFranzo is currently the director of scientific projects at Cofactor Genomics, a St. Louis-based biotechnology company.

LaFranzo is the director of scientific projects at Cofactor Genomics, a St. Louis-based company founded by scientists who had worked on the Human Genome Project in the 1990s and early 2000s. The project has played a key role in the personalized medicine revolution, paving the way for customized treatments tailored to each unique patient. Since the human genome’s publication, scientists have learned much more about cell-to-cell, day-to-day, and person-to-person differences in how DNA is transcribed into RNA and translated into proteins. These differences hold clues to diagnosing disease. The team at Cofactor Genomics hopes to help doctors use RNA-based diagnostics to prescribe the right drug to the right patient at the right time.

Cofactor has developed techniques for purifying and sequencing RNA more accurately and more efficiently than other labs, and the company develops its own data analysis software to harvest more information from these samples, researchers there say. Cofactor sells these tools to biotech companies specializing in drug development, medical research, and personalized medicine. LaFranzo, as head of the sales team, works in the midst of this exchange, communicating the technical discoveries made in Cofactor’s labs in a way that is accessible to the company’s clients – researchers and physicians searching for better ways to treat disease.

LaFranzo’s choice to pursue a career as a liaison between bench scientists and business clients is part of a growing trend for graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. In the past, doctoral trainees in the sciences typically worked as apprentices with a professor, aiming to become professors themselves. Recently, this pipeline has branched out, and now over half of STEM PhD students instead become entrepreneurs, writers, consultants, patent attorneys, administrators, or researchers in government or industry labs.

“I feel like I am making a real impact on how cancer is diagnosed and treated ... I realized I could take the same critical thinking skills I'd learned in graduate school and apply them to business questions that will make science more impactful.”

Realizing early on that she wanted to pursue a career in industry rather than academia, LaFranzo began leading consulting projects in the Biotechnology and Life Sciences Advising (BALSA) Group – a consulting organization based in St. Louis – while still a graduate student. Since graduating, she has worked at two biotech companies, as a project scientist, production specialist, and now as the director of scientific projects. Although LaFranzo has succeeded in avoiding the lab bench since leaving WashU, she has become a technical expert with an intimate understanding of the science done at Cofactor. Her job is to communicate that science and why it truly matters. “I feel like I am making a real impact on how cancer is diagnosed and treated,” she says.

LaFranzo says her time at WashU taught her about much more than her thesis topic, which involved creating self-assembled monolayers to protect surfaces and study neuronal development. She learned to critically evaluate scientific literature, and, in the process of publishing her own discoveries, she learned to design visuals and to polish her writing to present complex research to new audiences. Most important, she learned how to learn new concepts and techniques quickly and thoroughly. Such skills are hallmarks of the WashU Arts & Sciences curriculum, and LaFranzo notes that they define her job to this day. As a project manager in the BALSA group, she also learned how to handle a business relationship, work with clients, and how to be accountable – skills that she’s been able to transfer to her role at Cofactor Genomics.

“I realized I could take the same critical thinking skills I'd learned in graduate school and apply them to business questions that will make science more impactful,” LaFranzo says.

In addition to her biotech career and cheer coaching commitments, LaFranzo works with the American Chemical Society to provide career resources, networking opportunities, and leadership development for chemistry students. She is also chair of the National Younger Chemists Committee and is actively involved with the St. Louis chapter.

Her advice to current students for plotting the career path that best suits their skills and interests is to get out of the bubble of their academic departments. “There are so many different people on Washington University’s two campuses,” LaFranzo says. “Meet more people, talk about what interests and motivates them. Learn about what options are out there.”