5 Questions With Layla Ghaffari, Associate Scientist at American Gene Technologies

June 6, 2023

“5 Questions With…” is a recurring BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This week we welcome Layla Ghaffari, Associate Scientist at American Gene Technologies (AGT).

With seven years in the biotech Industry, Layla Ghaffari has already built a diverse professional portfolio that has allowed her to serve as an subject matter expert in both R&D and manufacturing environments. Having also worked in project management and leadership roles, she is passionate about utilizing a team-based approach to promote continuous advancement of the life sciences field.

1) Please introduce yourself to our audience by looking back at your education, training, and career path.

It is somewhat challenging to neatly distill my professional pathway because it’s not what I would refer to as traditional. That, paired with the depth of expertise that I established so early on in my career always makes for an interesting conversation with any would-be employers. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful for every position that I have held within the industry, and of those positions, there are four that have been uniquely instrumental to my personal and professional growth.

 In a nutshell, I was given the opportunity to start my career back in 2017 before obtaining my associate degree from Frederick Community College in 2019. I started at the Biopharmaceutical Advancement Facility (BAF), performing Upstream and Downstream contract research alongside University of Maryland students. The program was not designed for individuals that were only a year into community college, so the ­learning curve was long-winded and slightly agonizing. Yet, I came to love the industry, and solidified my commitment by declining every PharmD program acceptance letter that I had received.

After investing two years at the BAF, I found myself working as a Biologist in tandem with a brilliant team at ATCC. Here, my area of focus was far more specialized, as it focused on stem cell research. Subsequent to my departure from ATCC, I spent roughly one year at VaLogic as a Specialist I. To this day, I have yet to encounter a company that takes cross-training as seriously. On paper, I was under the Lab Services Department. However, the depth of cross-training that was made available to employees paved the way for me to learn Quality Assurance, Quality Control, Contamination Control, and Validation equally as well as my standard responsibilities. Ultimately, this bandwidth of capabilities gave me a level of comfort so that I could shift my focus to wrapping up my undergraduate degree. Now, I am fortunate enough to be an Associate Scientist at American Gene Technologies.

2) What are your favorite parts of AGT and its mission?

AGT is a unique beast, and given our objectives, rightfully so. I have worked at companies where there was a collective sense in feeling far removed from the overall purpose of the work being done, either because the mission was lacking focus, and/or was poorly communicated. As a result, there was often ambivalence amongst the staff, and it affected the quality of work. Our goals at AGT are clear, ambitious, and function as the adhesive by which we are bound as a team. The purpose is evident, and the hunger to achieve our mission is palpable.

In 2019, I skipped a physics test to hear Jeff Galvin, AGT’s CEO, speak at Frederick Community College. I recall that companies were starting to use the term “sustainability” in excess to deliver a forward-thinking image, but most fell short because these proclamations were rarely backed by action. It was during Jeff’s talk that I desired a future for myself at AGT, if they were willing to have me. I love being involved in supporting the production of a technology that is intended to not only be durable and sustainable, but so applicable that it might potentially serve as the foundation for multiple cures.

3) What are you working on now and what are you looking forward to in the months ahead?

I am involved in two of our three major pipeline projects: PKU and immuno-oncology. Alongside benchwork, I have spent several months pouring immeasurable energy into building all existing in-house downstream resources, as well as designing a custom serum-free upstream process. Both upstream and downstream capabilities have been designed in such a way that allows for a flexible range of scalability. Naturally, any number of obstacles arise when conducting novel research, and I am excited to see how the implementation of these resources impacts future studies.

More importantly, it is an exciting time to be working at AGT.

4) What advice would you give someone struggling to begin their career in the life science industry?

First and foremost, consult with industry professionals in a variety of roles at multiple levels of leadership. Part of the reason I am still in love with the field is because of the sense of community and willingness to provide insight to fellow biotech professionals.

Next, take time to reflect on which personality attributes give you the most satisfaction to fulfill. For example, a distinctly curious individual who is endlessly seeking an answer to “the why” will likely find a fluid space such as Research and Development to be a great fit.

Lastly, set up a framework that outlines where you envision yourself professionally every year for the next five years,  with the understanding that you must also be open to opportunities as they present themselves, even if they change the framework.

5) If you could teleport anywhere, where would you go?

I have never been one for chilly temperatures, but I would be perfectly content being sent to any one of the three Aran Islands. I’d likely set up a residence and utilize my free time to master cheesemaking.