Your career path can take you to unexpected places: A profile on Ripley Ballou

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Listening to the speakers at the NatureJobs Career Expo in Boston, it became clear to me that career goals can change over time. Career paths are no longer straight lines nor are they set in stone. More often than not, people start out with an idea of what they want, may it be tenure in academia or a job in industry, but on the way they realise that their passion lies somewhere else. One great example for why it is worth to follow your passion rather than stick to the career path you initially set for yourself is Ripley Ballou, who was interviewed by NatureJobs Editor Jack Leeming at the Expo.

Ripley Ballou spent the last 30 years working on vaccine development and is now the Vice President and Head of the US R&D Center of GSK Vaccines in Rockville, Maryland. But Ripley wasn’t always set on doing research. Growing up he wanted to be a doctor. He studied medicine and started working at the Walter Reed Army base where he encountered  various infectious diseases. Wanting to explore these horrible diseases from a different angle and keen to develop ways to prevent them, rather than “just” treat them, he trained in the lab. He soon started working in clinical researches, specifically in vaccine development – first at MedImmune and now at GSK.

In addition to building up a new Vaccine R&D centre, Ripley is the Head of Ebola research at GSK. While normal vaccine development takes ten to fifteen years, GSK has managed, in the case of Ebola, to radically shorten this time frame to one year. Accelerated trials and new technology acquired by GSK is something Ripley wants to spend more time on in the future.

While his resume is outstanding, what struck me most listening to Ripley Ballou was his passion for what he is doing. He told the story of how, in a “time when you could be both, the investigator and test subject in a study”; him and his colleagues tested a potential malaria vaccine on themselves. The vaccine wasn’t fully functional and only protected one of the people involved. Ripley contracted malaria and has never been that sick in his life, he told us. But instead of this slowing him down, he thought to himself: “We have to beat this thing” and that with the vaccine protecting one person, they must be on the right track. And while it took 20 more years, GSK now has a malaria vaccine (Mosquirix™ (RTS,S)) in phase 3 trials! Definitely a success story and it is clear that his decision to leave the path of medicine to become a researcher was the right choice.

What advice did Ripley Ballou have for the audience?

Ripley encouraged the early career researchers in the audience to be positive about their future! While acknowledging that funding in the academic research sector is sparse, funding for industry keeps increasing and there are huge opportunities for highly trained PhDs and PostDocs!

Secondly, also given his own career path: Have an open mind! You never know where your career takes you and that’s ok. Your scientific background prepared you well for a number of jobs. Try finding what makes you happy and don’t be afraid to sway from the path you thought you always wanted. Explore the twists and turns. Your passion can change over the years and so can your career path.

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