From bench to biotech
Kendall Square has been called the most innovative square mile in the United States, in part due to the high density of biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies in the MIT-adjacent neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts — but more so thanks to the generations of MIT-trained doctoral students who have pursued careers in these local companies after graduation. Yet, that innovation ecosystem remains a mystery for several current students.
“Many, or even most, graduate students have no substantive experience with the biopharma industry despite the likelihood that they will pursue careers in this realm,” says Doug Lauffenburger, the Ford Professor of Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Biology. For the last several years, the departments of Biology and Biological Engineering have tried to better inform and prepare their students for that possibility with 7.930/20.930 (Research Experience in Biopharma), a for-credit class providing late-stage doctoral students with hands-on experience in industry.
“It’s really designed to demystify doing research in industry,” says Amy Keating, a professor of biology and biological engineering. “The feedback we get suggests it’s quite eye-opening in terms of changing some assumptions about what that life is like.”
The class has been offered annually since Spring 2016. Most recently offered this past fall, it’s co-taught by Keating and Sean Clarke, a communications instructor and manager of biotech outreach within the Department of Biological Engineering. Participants spend most of their time at part-time internships with local biotech and biopharma companies working on semester-long projects.
“The emphasis really is more on the experience than the particular project or hitting some milestone,” says Clarke. He explains that industry partners offer up potential projects, and students are matched “so that they’re close enough in expertise and interest, but not directly overlapping with thesis work or so outrageous that they can’t be contributors.”
Most students are based in the departments of Biology and Biological Engineering, but others have come from Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. Clarke and Keating say that almost all participants have gone on to pursue industry careers, sometimes at the companies that hosted them during the class.
Student ideas for student opportunities
Lauffenburger, Keating, and Clarke all stress that the driving force behind the class in its early days was students. In particular, they highlight the contributions of Raven Reddy PhD ’17 and Nathan Stebbins PhD ’17, two former biological engineering doctoral students.
“It’s a good example of identifying an excellent idea that came from students themselves and simply putting departmental support, attention, and resources behind it,” says Lauffenburger.
Reddy and Stebbins were two of the early leaders of the MIT Biotechnology Group, a student-led organization designed precisely to expose students to the world of industry. In brainstorming with members how best to explore potential careers path, “part-time internships were far and away one of the most popular things that people said might be a really enriching experience,” says Reddy, now vice president of science operations at BridgeBio Pharma in Palo Alto, California.
The industry representatives they approached were thrilled by the opportunity to host MIT PhD students; so, Reddy and Stebbins sought out a way to make part-time internships possible. Given time constraints on students and their advisors — and legal constraints for companies — they landed on a class as the best possible arrangement.
Formatting the experience as a class was a “win-win scenario on all sides that decreased the barrier to entry for every party,” says Stebbins, now a principal at Flagship Pioneering, a life sciences investment group in Cambridge.
Stebbins and Reddy were listed as co-teachers that first semester. It’s been taught every year since, with Lauffenburger, Keating, and Clarke keeping the momentum going after Stebbins and Reddy graduated and began their own careers in the private sector.
While the focus of the Research Experience in Biopharma class is on the internship, students spend one hour per week in the classroom together to hear from guest lecturers, make contacts in industry, and build professional development skills.
This past fall, one such guest speaker was Becky Kusko ’09, one of the first undergraduates in the Department of Biological Engineering. After getting her PhD in genetics and genomics at Boston University in 2014, she now works for Immuneering Corporation, a local company that uses bioinformatics technology to streamline drug development.
In October 2021, Kusko spoke to students in the class to describe her own transition from academia to the private sector and provide a “behind-the-scenes” look at day-to-day life in biotech. She says she’s envious that students have this opportunity to explore their options now. Personally, she says, she had “zero interest” in — or understanding of — the private sector until a series of happy accidents took her to Immuneering as she wrapped up her dissertation.
“I had my list of 72 reasons why I was perfectly cut out for academia,” she says, “but then I realized all of those things I can do in an industry career.” During her time at Immuneering, she says, she’s published in peer-review journals, mentored students, and presented at conferences — all things she assumed were limited to the academic track. Her take-home message for the students was simply to be open-minded to different opportunities.
Kusko’s lecture was a highlight of the class for Allen Sanderlin, a fifth-year graduate student in biology, who says he’s always been interested in the industry route and enrolled in the class to explore that possibility further. The fact that it’s a for-credit class, he says, means it’s more “regimented” than a speaker series or seminar, and so it felt easier to fit into his schedule and more reflective of the actual experience of working at a company.
During his internship this past fall, Sanderlin worked with the functional genomics team at Pfizer, helping to identify target genes and determine if certain equipment and techniques are worth investing in. “We’re at the very start of the drug pipeline,” he says. “It’s like nothing I’ve done before.”
That’s not to say that there haven’t been parallels between his internship and his doctoral work in the lab of Becky Lamason, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Biology. “Fundamentally, they’re very different things, but at the same time, the skills and techniques I’ve learned in the lab, like tissue culturing, have helped,” he says. Similarly, what he’s learned at Pfizer about managing huge numbers of samples and automating processes has inspired him to find ways to be more efficient in his own work.
Anna Yeh is another fifth-year student in biology. Like Sanderlin, Yeh was always interested in industry but wasn’t sure of what that life entailed.
“Before this, I’ve just been purely in an academic setting,” Yeh says. “This seemed like a nice contained, low-bar way to be exposed to the industry career path.”
Like Sanderlin, Yeh was based at Pfizer for her internship, in the internal medicine unit, doing research totally unlike her doctoral work in the lab of Adam Martin, an associate professor of biology. At MIT, she uses flies to study how organisms come together into a coherent shape in the early stages of development. In contrast, at Pfizer, she worked with mice to see how increasing fructose in their diet affects liver health.
Yet, Yeh sees clear ways that her own research in molecular biology has helped her during her time at Pfizer, as well as how to incorporate skills from her internship into her own work going forward.
“The knowledge is definitely helpful,” she says, “just in terms of trying new things and using techniques I’ve only read about in papers.”
After taking the class, both Sanderlin and Yeh are more confident than ever about pursuing careers in industry. Their mentors at Pfizer, they say, have been invaluable helping them network, looking over their resumes, and discussing career options with them. Both also recommend the course wholeheartedly for future students.
“If anyone is unsure of whether they’d like to go into industry, this is a great class to get a taste of it,” says Yeh. “I think everyone should be aware of it as an option.”
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