A Neuropsychologist Prospers in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Peter J. Snyder
Pfizer Global Research & Development

As a young child I decided that, if I was unable to pursue a career as a helicopter-jumping wilderness firefighter, then I would I model after my father and obtain a PhD in psychology and neuroscience. Over time, I decided against a career as a firefighter, and I have pursued one in psychology. In my junior year at the University of Michigan, while completing an honors thesis on a topic in behavioral neuroendocrinology, I took an Introduction to Human Neuropsychology course offered by the professor who had supervised my father’s PhD dissertation about 20 years beforehand, Charles Butters, PhD. Charlie’s course convinced me that it was possible to conduct elegant and innovative human cognitive neuroscience research, and so I set my sights on the field of human neuropsychology. For the next three years, I spent almost all academic holidays and summer vacation time in Connecticut as a student under the supervision of Robert A. Novelly, PhD, (Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Yale and the West-Haven VAMC). I remember the day that I first watched Bob conduct an Intracarotid Sodium Amobarbital Test (Wada Test) on a patient being considered for surgical resection of a focal epileptogenic lesion — it was at that moment that I knew I had to become both a clinical neuropsychologist and a researcher.

I completed my PhD at Michigan State University under the primary supervision of Professor Lauren Julius Harris. Lauren taught me how to be careful and conscientious as a scientist, how to teach others, and how to write with some skill. He was a wonderful mentor, to whom I thank for ensuring that I remained fully committed to the Boulder Model. I received my PhD in 1992, after completing the clinical neuropsychology Internship at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center (Albert Einstein College of Medicine), and I remained there, as a postdoctoral fellow, to pursue studies of speech and language disorders in epilepsy using quantitative MRI morphometric techniques.

In 1994, I moved to the department of neurology at MCP-Hahnemann School of Medicine (Pittsburgh campus), to become the principal neuropsychologist for the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. I was appointed the Director of the Division of Behavioral Neurology, and in 1998, I became associate professor of neurology. I had the unique experience of being the only PhD in my department at a large university medical center, as well as being the only clinical PhD in a private practice group with five neurologists. This was a fantastic arrangement, and I enjoyed great opportunities for professional growth and development as a professor and researcher, as a clinician with a strong background in neurology, and, as a manager.

My career took an abrupt turn when, a little more than four years ago, my fiancée matched to an OB-Gyn residency program in Connecticut. Within six months of receiving a long-dreamt-of academic promotion I moved to Connecticut to accept a clinical research position at the largest R&D campus for the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, Inc. To the best of my knowledge, I am the sole neuropsychologist employed within Pfizer’s R&D Division, on any of its research campuses. My principal roles at Pfizer are: 1) to evaluate and/or discover new brain imaging and non-imaging neurophysiologic methods for detecting and tracking early CNS disease progression; and 2) to serve as an internal consultant on the appropriate, ethical, and rational use of neuropsychological instrumentation. I am also an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT), where I supervise doctoral students and teach the graduate core course in cognitive neuroscience.

The transition from clinical practice and an academic medical research career to a career in the pharmaceutical industry was challenging. There are aspects of clinical practice that I miss, but the opportunities at Pfizer for innovative research are enormous. I am fortunate to work in a setting that allows substantial creative freedom and the ability to expand my own research group using a largely academic model. A company like Pfizer possesses the resources that are required to tackle the complex problem of developing novel (sensitive and specific) biomarkers of CNS disease progression and/or treatment response. Most of my research, in some way, contributes to the short- or medium-range goals for the company to develop effective and safe pharmacologic treatments for a variety of neurologic illnesses. At Pfizer, I am privileged to work closely with extremely bright and talented individuals who span numerous scientific and medical disciplines. Just as important, my students are benefiting tremendously from access to the vast array of research and educational opportunities at Pfizer.

I suspect that all pharmaceutical companies support their scientists’ efforts to remain as active contributors to their respective fields. I am encouraged to continue my pre-existing collaborative research relationships, to build new ones, and to maintain an active role in my own field.

Not long ago it was assumed that leaving academia for industry was akin to committing “professional suicide.” In my experience, this old view is entirely inaccurate. It is possible to enjoy an exciting research career in a pharmaceutical R&D setting, and to mix quality research with business opportunities that may greatly enhance management and leadership skills. Since joining a pharmaceutical company I have had more opportunities to continue to teach, to supervise graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and to edit, write and publish than I can possibly keep up with. I have stopped trying to accurately predict what twists and turns my career path will take. I tell my students that if they enjoy their work and strive for excellence, then unexpected opportunities will emerge that may radically alter the career trajectory they had anticipated.

(Originally published in the Winter 2002 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)