PhDs explore the leap from research science to commerce

As life science PhD students and postdocs scan the horizon for possible careers, many are turning to the one-week ASCB­–Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) course Managing Science in the Biotech Industry to learn what a biosciences industry future looks like.

“What we’ve found is that the kind of industry knowledge they learn over the week, and some of the professional development skills,” give the students an edge in understanding the jobs to apply for and in job interviews, says KGI Dean of the School of Applied Life Sciences Steve Casper.

The course gives participants a basic understanding of the bioscience industry, including such topics as company strategies and business models, entrepreneurship, networking, and the crucial point that scientifically valuable discoveries won’t necessarily have a commercial market.

Participants worked in interdisciplinary teams that mimic typical company experiences.

Participants worked in interdisciplinary teams that mimic typical company experiences.

Attendees use academic lessons, including case studies, as a basis for engaging in interdisciplinary teamwork that mimics typical company experiences. Using their PhD research skills, the 50 participants tackle projects that challenge them to apply their course work to research and develop both a medical and a business case for commercializing a theoretical life sciences product. For the last two years, projects have involved 3D printing of prototype medical implants for which teams must justify a go/no-go decision whether to commercialize the product.

In addition, students gain professional development insights and skills, including through career lunch panels during which industry professionals discuss their work experience and answer students’ questions.

At the 2017 course, held from July 10–15 in Claremont, CA, ASCB Chief Executive Officer Erika C. Shugart met with the attendees, giving them a brief overview of her career evolution and inviting attendee involvement as ASCB pursues industry collaborations under ASCB’s new strategic plan. She noted the success of the course: “As of mid-2017, more than 50% of those who attended the ASCB-KGI course in the past four years have gotten jobs in industry.”

Participants were also enthusiastic. Benjamin Akhuetie-oni, from Yale University, says that it was most interesting to learn “the process of obtaining investment and capital in the early stages of forming a life science start-up.” Networking and communication skills, not only the science, are critical, and individuals play a key role in a start-up’s success, he adds. Interacting with peers about their shared passion for science and future career plans “has been incredibly fun,” he says. Anna Kobb, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, says that being exposed to business and marketing knowledge “has been useful and enlightening.” Working on the team projects provided the pleasure both of engaging with classmates and of solving a challenge together.

Quinn Li, from the University of Iowa, especially enjoyed interacting with her peers and learning about their career goals and strategies for reaching those aims. “This course will serve as an inspiration in helping us think about the business aspects of our science research,” and many will want to go beyond the course materials, she says. Misagh Naderi, at Louisiana State University, agrees, noting that the course “definitely has given me a sense of direction for my future career” and he now plans to take additional business courses. The extensive reading in areas outside his comfort zone was both challenging and rewarding, he says, as was the opportunity to interact with students of different nationalities from diverse universities.

ASCB and KGI also offer a one-day version of the course the day before the Annual Meeting. More information on this year’s course, which will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia on December 1, is available at

About the Author:

David Clarke is a Washington DC-area freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience covering scientific, environmental, and energy topics as a journalist, senior policy advisor, and consultant. He has a B.A. in Technical Writing and an M.A. in Government and Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University, Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

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