During her internship at biotech startup Alector, Helen Lam learned for the first time the advantages that scientists gain by working in a team.

She also got a career boost. Helen now works full-time as a research associate at Alector, which develops antibody therapies for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Helen grew up in Union City in the East Bay. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from UC Davis, and completed a master’s degree—“a mix of science and business”—at San Francisco State University, before the director of her program referred her to QB3@953.

QB3@953 is an incubator located close to the UC San Francisco Mission Bay campus. It’s operated by QB3, a University of California research institute and accelerator. QB3’s mission is to grow the California economy, and JP Morgan Chase offered to help by providing paid internships for promising students such as Helen to work at companies in the incubator.
Helen interviewed with several companies at QB3@953, and chose Alector. “I chose Alector because their research was focused on Alzheimer’s, and they use techniques from immunology, which I’m interested in,” she says.

In her experiments, Helen explores how antibodies bind to immune cells, as part of the startup’s program to develop therapies for Alzheimer’s. She also cultures white blood cells for other scientists to use. She often works with Kate Monroe, the lead scientist for neuroimmunology and cell biology at Alector. “The team environment has really helped me do well,” she says. “I like collaborating on projects.”

Although her parents would like her to pursue a PhD, Helen prefers to work in industry for a few years, to gain some experience before considering her options.

Does she have any advice for students considering a career in biotech? For her, internships at Alector, Genentech, and UC Davis have been essential. But it’s hard to break into the field, because employers are always looking for candidates who already have skills. “Get that first internship however you can, through friends or whatever,” she says. “Then you can learn a lot of the major techniques—like PCR and Western blots—and it’s easier to get hired elsewhere.”