Virtual biotech course a huge success


When the pandemic compelled ASCB to merge its two in-person summer biotech courses into one Virtual Biotech Course, the organizers expected that the 45 attendees would learn a lot and enjoy themselves during the five days from July 13–17. Judging from the enthusiastic participation and comments received, the superb presenters and panelists knocked it out of the park.

As always, Steve Casper, Keck Graduate Institute, kicked off the week of intensive learning with an interactive lecture on the commercialization of science, introducing the attendees to key business concepts as he shared a case study with them. That set the stage for what followed.

Next up was ASCB’s very own Harvey Lodish, whose presentation prompted research assistant Mengyao Niu to sum up what many felt: “Dr. Lodish’s personal story is very inspiring.” In his remarks, Lodish discussed how he thrives, with many other colleagues, in straddling the space between academia and industry. Most U.S. research universities have policies in place that encourage faculty to become entrepreneurs, Lodish noted, some by offering faculty one day a week to spend on outside professional activities. As a result, many such faculty have developed new technologies that are the foundation of successful companies developing new therapies to treat diseases. He also discussed rare disease research, one of his passions. Lodish wrapped up with a discussion of two of his newest companies, Carmine Therapeutics and Tevard, both of which are staffed by his former postdocs and are being funded by major pharmaceutical companies.

But besides inspiration, attendees needed practical insights to help them get a leg up in the job market. On Tuesday, that’s what Randy Ribaudo and Larry Petcovik from SciPhD offered in their professional development workshop. Their session covered such topics as where one can work; what kinds of jobs are available; what salary to expect; job qualifications and necessary skill sets; how to build your network and take advantage of LinkedIn contacts; informational interviews; and resources for preparing for interviews. “Every sentence was of importance,” said Klaus Becker in a chat comment.

By Wednesday, attendees were well prepared for a boot camp on entrepreneurship. Divided into small groups, they jumped right in: reading a primary science article, identifying a commercial biotech opportunity from the article, and then making a five-minute pitch for a firm to potentially commercialize the opportunity. The team exercise involved identifying a founding idea and value proposition for a biotech company and then performing market research, determining market size, and investigating technical milestones. After a couple of hours working in breakout rooms, the groups made their pitches for the final hour of the day. Participants chose the winning team through a Zoom poll.

Thursday consisted of two panels: The first was on industry vs. academic career paths. As expected, participants asked the panelists lots of questions: Is a postdoc necessary? How about an MBA? What personalities do better in academia vs. industry? How’s work–life balance in biotech or startups compared with academia? Generally the advice was: There’s not just one career path and you should be prepared for change and will continue to have choices along the way. It’s impossible to know if you’re making the right decision in taking a particular job, but do the experiment, and if it doesn’t work try something else—advice scientists could readily understand. Then you make a new decision and change again. The panelists also suggested getting experience in a large company to build a network and learn from other smart people before going to a startup. They also noted that interviewers will be looking for intangible soft skills, so it’s important to build up those skills.

The second panel discussed the implications of COVID-19 on innovation. Bottom line: It’s having a very uneven effect on companies, but the consensus was that there are still plenty of job postings in biotech. Panelists all stressed the urgent need for clear science communications both during the pandemic and going forward.

Affirming and expanding upon what the professional panelists had to say, on the last day attendees heard two presentations that led Jyoti Thapaliya, a postdoc from Hunter College, to comment, “These are essentially teachings for life.” First, Denise Dunlap, Manning School of Business, gave a lecture on the importance of social networks. She was followed by Judy Heyboer, an executive coach in the Silicon Valley area formerly in human resources at Genentech, who offered pragmatic advice for success. Heyboer discussed what it takes to succeed in the corporate world and how to get there, including advice such as: Do what you love/love what you do. Find a work culture that works for you. The team is far more important than the individual in business. And the ability to work with people is more important than the ability to succeed technically.

The course wrapped up with a virtual happy hour and breakout rooms where people discovered what they had in common. Although, not surprisingly, most attendees would have preferred to meet in person, the intellectually stimulating Virtual Biotech Course nevertheless more than satisfied their expectations.

ASCB is grateful to the 2020 course sponsors: Biogen, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the Center for Advancing Point of Care Technologies.

About the Author:

Thea Clarke is the Director of Communications and Education at the American Society for Cell Biology.