Monday, 14 July 2014 14:08

Learning the Biotech Ropes—ASCB-KGI Short Course Wraps Up

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rev1Graduate students and postdocs were eager to
speak with Cristina Lewis of Genentech after
she concluded her workshop
on Small Molecule Drug Discovery.
ASCB photo by Thea Clarke
The 40 came from all over North America, Europe, and Africa, 24 grad students and 16 postdocs, chosen from the 532 applications the ASCB received from members for a special 12-day "short" course on "Managing Science in the Biotech Industry" at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) with funding from EMD Millipore. Besides their ASCB connection, what the participants had in common were years of academic training and a curiosity about life in biotech.

The short course was held on the KGI campus in Claremont, CA. Through a mixture of talks, MBA-style "case studies," and group projects, participants learned the biotech basics: corporate accounting, finance, company valuation, PhD-level career paths, patent law, and IP transfer (including its ultimate source in universities). They networked like mad. They also heard 10 industry leaders describe industry-specific professional skills such as project management and presentation.

Early in the course, the ASCB-KGI participants were divided into groups of five to develop an opportunity analysis of a validated biomarker for a new cancer diagnostic for pancreatic, bladder, liver, or prostate cancer. The project required each group to integrate scientific and business analysis, combine their knowledge of medical diagnostics with market assessment techniques, and then formally present their analysis.

Working on their projects in the late afternoons and evenings, the group unveiled their projects on the final day to KGI staff and industry experts who asked rigorous questions. A rubric was used to rank each team. At a luncheon on the patio, the winning team was presented with a small gift.

Participants were almost uniformly ecstatic with the new perspective and their fellow students. Priya Choudhry, who is a postdoc at Caltech, reported an almost immediate rapport with her course-mates. Although the participants came from a mix of fields and even disciplines, Choudhry said that they were all fresh from the lab and from graduate training, all roughly the same age—mid-20s to early 30s—and all curious about career outside academic research. What they all lacked was the bio industry perspective. "We all live in the science world," Choudry explains. "We always think about how to write grants, how to find genes, and then we look for a cure. But from the business perspective, it's entirely different." At ASCB-KGI, Choudhry had a glimpse of all the parameters—financial, practical, regulatory, and scientific—that go into a biotech enterprise. "It was a real eye-opener," Choudhry says.

rev2ASCB-KGI course participants (left to right)
Sol Reyna, Lei Mi-Mi, and Lu Chen.
ASCB photo by Thea Clarke.
Lu Chen was also excited by the camaraderie among participants as well as the high caliber of her classmates. Chen had done group projects in graduate school and did not remember the experience fondly. But at the ASCB-KGI short course, her team of five was very logical, efficient, and fun. "I really enjoyed the group project," she admits.

Chen had just finished her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh before flying out to California but she'd already taken a new job back in the Pittsburgh area with a non-profit that promotes technology transfer. The ASCB-KGI course gave her a new appreciation of the wide variety of pathways including non-bench positions for science PhDs in biotech. It also gave her new ideas of how to use her science training outside academia. "Before this course, I didn't know where to look or what to look for," says Chen. "This will help me focus my search and shape my career."

ASCB Director of Communications Thea Clarke says the preliminary feedback from all sides has been so enthusiastic that ASCB is already exchanging ideas with KGI and EMD Millipore about repeating the short course or adding others focused on the bench-to-biotech interface for next summer. Meantime, this year's ASCB-KGI participants report that they remain tightly connected through Linked-In, Facebook, and direct email.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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