May 16, 2015

Broadening Viewpoints

Lessons on the nature of the biotech industry as part of a graduate school education

So-called “alternative careers” in science are increasingly encouraged by some as academic positions become harder to come by and as students recognize the wide range of possible uses for their science PhD (You can check out where science PhDs end up in a sweet infographic from ASCB). These careers include jobs in the biotech industry, government labs, science journalism, and science policy. In recognition of growing interest in these careers, many graduate programs offer courses to educate students about these careers. Additionally, many graduate students have formed organizations to promote interest in these fields and provide opportunities to practice skills necessary to pursue them.

I have always wanted to become a professor and run my own research lab. As a professor, I may want to commercialize my scientific findings and make them useful to the public. Understanding the basics of how industry works and, more importantly how universities and industry interact in this process, would be helpful. I also love learning about new subjects, especially in science, and industry was never something I had gotten the chance to learn about in depth.

In this spirit, I signed up for course jointly offered by WUSTL’s Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) graduate program and Olin Business School called “Biotech Industry Innovators”. This class provided a broad introduction to subjects that are relevant to running and interacting with biotech companies, including those involved in pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

While there were a number of fellow PhD students from DBBS, there were also Masters students from the School of Engineering, many MBA students from the Business School, and, surprisingly, quite a few undergraduates.

The course had three major parts: case studies, guest speakers, and a final group project. For each class, we read and discussed a case study focusing on a different start-up and covered subjects like obtaining funding, protecting and using intellectual property, and how companies and universities interact with themselves and each other to commercialize discoveries. The amount of detail in some of these case studies was a bit overwhelming to those of us not familiar with the business world, especially when discussions became heavy with fundraising- and stock-related jargon. These cases revealed the how values underlying decisions made by businesses and academia can differ.

One unexpected part of these discussions that I found particularly useful was when debates would erupt between students about what we read. These debates made obvious that people from different backgrounds will have different value systems and that it is important to never assume that other people share your values. As such, it was important that I not only explained what my view was on a particular topic, but also what motivated me to have that view. For example, I assumed that it was obvious to other people why basic science is just as important as translational research. Many other students did not initially understand my viewpoint but once I explained my reasons why basic science is important, we were able to agree that there are benefits to both basic and translational research, but that different types of organizations may have goals met by one particular type.

These lessons also proved useful in the final group project, which involved creating an executive business plan for a new company. This project forced me to make decisions about subjects I had read about in our case studies, such as how to market a scientific discovery and how to fund a lab beyond applying for government grants. It again emphasized that in the biotech industry, it is important to pursue the most profitable and feasible projects, not necessarily the ones that are most intellectually interesting.

Guest speakers were brought in to talk about their own work as it related to our current topic in class. In some ways, these speakers were more informative than the case studies as they provided real examples of what it is like to work in different parts of industry and many were able to talk about the differences between working in industry and academia, which is especially relevant for my career path. These speakers also gave examples of the uncertainty of the future and how it is always possible to change the career you are in if you are willing to take the risks required.

Overall, I confirmed that a job in the biotech industry is probably not right for me. Work in industry can be very high risk/high reward and is focused on discoveries that can be commercialized rather than basic scientific research. I am more motivated to make basic scientific discoveries rather than only focusing on research, and the idea that I would need to scrap a particular project because I couldn’t produce a product from it is not appealing.

However, many qualities that are critical for survival in industry, such as being able to effectively communicate one’s ideas and perspective and learning new skills, are useful no matter what field a person works in. A lack of effective communication stifles progress and limits the usefulness of discoveries, both for product development and generating new questions to study. In addition, diversification in skills and the specific markets a company is focused on can be important to keep a company competitive. Similarly, in academic research, expanding knowledge of skills within multiple scientific disciplines can provide new perspectives and tools to tackle a difficult problem or question.

Taking this course has helped me feel confident about where I want to direct my career and motivated me even more to seek out ways to expand my skill set to prepare for future opportunities. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to learn about other areas of science and to be part of a graduate program that encourages students to obtain such a diverse perspective.