As scientists who come from underrepresented backgrounds, we have had many informal discussions about the climate at Sackler and advocating for diversity in the graduate programs at Sackler. While Tufts Sackler supports various pipeline initiatives (PREP, P2P, BDBS) we feel that it does not have mechanisms in place that intentionally create a space for minority scientists who are training at Sacker. We met in March and had an open discussion about our interests relevant to the group, the immediate needs of the community, and long term goals.
Programs aimed at diversifying the STEM academy have successfully increased recruitment of undergraduate and graduate students from groups traditionally underrepresented in careers in the sciences. An emphasis on recruitment may help to update the narrow image of what a scientist looks like, but additional action is needed to evolve the full picture of who scientists are. We are Scientists Promoting INclusive Excellence at Sackler (SPINES).
Inclusive excellence is a model first proposed by the American Academy for Colleges and Universities and recognizes that efforts of diversity can result in meaningful, measurable improvements in the excellence of an institution when that institution creates an environment that welcomes the cultural diversity of those included. For the STEM academy to benefit from a diversity of contributors, the culture and atmosphere of the STEM academy must update to include that of the new participants. It is this dissonance that may be responsible for the ever discussed “leaky pipeline” or disappearance of diverse bodies from the STEM career path as their career trajectory progresses. As problematic as the “pipeline” analogy is (we can unpack that for days), anyone concerned with progress in the sciences should recognize that this progress requires sustained conversations around social justice issues and retention of minority scientists.
SPINES believes we can help each other achieve inclusive excellence in the sciences by building a community of scientists at Sackler who recognize and celebrate each other’s diversity of ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and gender identity. We formally describe our mission below, but loosely we want to build spaces where we feel free to discuss all aspects of our lives as developing scientists. We will offer each other support even if this means giving technical advice as someone works through frustrating equipment errors in the lab or offering a shoulder to lean on as one struggles with the pain and helpless feeling from viewing the latest videotaped example of injustice on the nightly news.
Below we list some short-term goals for the group; however, we would like to highlight that our organizational model relies on horizontal leadership and community-based decision-making. We recognize that the needs and priorities of a community can change over time and therefore we encourage all members to take active roles in developing and implementing their ideas with the knowledge that the entire group will support them.
• Enhance the diversity of speakers that are invited to give program seminar talks
• Learn about active bystander, anti-oppression, intersectionality, and privilege via reading books, articles, and invited speakers
• Connect incoming underrepresented graduate students with a peer mentor
• Build professional connections with biotech/industry to address the lack of diversity in these sectors
• Provide networking opportunities
Our priority is to establish a welcoming community at Sackler where people of all backgrounds and identities feel nurtured and supported in achieving their scientific, personal, and intellectual goals.
When it comes to reporting our scientific findings, we are trained to compose manuscripts that are measured, precise and objective. The mainstream media, however, take a very different approach to broadcasting scientific news: headlines designed to grab readers tend to be more sensationalized and the articles draw more conclusive and overarching statements. These contrasting approaches to reporting are appropriate in their respective fields and it is important that we as scientists learn to take advantage of mainstream journalism for the publication of our discoveries, not only for the reputations of our university and ourselves, but also to share with the public, whose tax dollars fund most of our work, what we have accomplished. Enter the Tufts Public Relations Office—a fantastic resource that allows us the opportunity to share our research with the community outside of our scientific world. The purpose of the seminar du jour was to inform the Tufts community on how the office works and how to best use it to our advantage.
The purpose of the seminar was to provide some information on how to work with the PR office when you are ready to publish work that you would like to broadcast beyond scientific journals. Kevin, the assistant director of the office, stressed that the earlier you get in touch with the PR office, the better prepared they will be to help you. The best time to contact them about publicizing a manuscript is when you are submitting your final revisions to the scientific journal that will be publishing the paper. You will be asked to share your manuscript with the office so that Kevin and members of his team, who are well versed in reading scientific literature, can familiarize themselves with your work. Soon after, they will meet with you to discuss the details of your study, get a quote, and draft a news release that your PI can edit and approve. From there on out, the PR Office works to spread the word on your research via prominent blogs, science, local, and potentially national media, depending on your work’s level of impact. The PR Office is also equipped to help you interact with reporters effectively: they can prepare you to talk about your science in layman’s terms to be more relatable and better understood by the general public.
By sharing your work with more mainstream media, you build your reputation as well as credit your university, your funding agencies, and the tax-paying public. Reach out to the PR Office for more information on communicating your science with the rest of the world and take advantage of the great opportunities they offer that can make you a more visible and effective participant in the science world!
One last tip for those of you interested in improving your science communication skills–keep your eyes peeled for more details on our upcoming joint Dean’s Office / TBBC / GSC Event, Sackler Speaks in April! This is a competition for students to pitch their 3-minute flash talks in front of a panel of judges. Besides critical feedback on presentation skills, there will also be cash prizes for winning presentations!
Contacts at the Tufts PR Office, Boston Campus:
Siobhan Gallagher, Deputy Director (Siobhan.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kevin Jiang, Assistant Director (Kevin.Jiang@tufts.edu)
Scientific graduate programs all over the country do a wonderful job training their students to become critical thinkers able to design experiments, write fellowship grants, write peer reviewed papers, and grasp complex scientific systems. Nearly all programs, however, struggle to provide career training. Traditionally, skills such as mentoring, teaching, and leadership have been learned by observing others. This has generated many excellent scientists, mentors, teachers, and leaders, but how many more could we have developed had students received directed training? And how much better would our current scientific leaders be had they not had to reinvent the wheel for themselves?
One of the dangers of requiring students to learn through osmosis is that we tend to recapitulate what we see, even if it is not the most effective method. Partly this is because many of us do find this an effective way of gaining skills and knowledge, but there is also a mentality of initiation: we had to struggle, the next generation should experience this too. There are many answers to this paucity of career development training, however, in the form of business clubs, student and postdoc association lead career workshops, and online extracurricular courses.
Some of us at Sackler interested in a teaching career have taken advantage of a short course entitled “Scientists Teaching Science” which teaches best practices in science education, based on the latest research on teaching and learning by STEM Education Solutions (http://stem-k20.com/). This is a completely online course that runs about nine weeks with a different module every week. Depending on the week, the time commitment is about 3 hours per week for light weeks and as much as 8 hours per week on heavy weeks (depending on how assiduous a note taker you are when doing readings and how detailed you are in written assignments).
I found the intro to the course very illustrative and memorable. We were asked to read several articles on how science has traditionally been taught and how active learning has repeatedly been shown to improve learning outcomes, then Barbara Houtz started her own narrated lecture in the traditional “Sage on the Stage” style. My heart immediately sank as I envisioned the next nine weeks writing dense, jargon filled notes on topics that seemed esoteric and non-practical. This was not what I thought I was signing up for! Then she paused and asked the question, “what are you thinking?”
That’s when the real lecture began. The narrated lectures were fantastic! Available 24/7 and provided as both narration and transcript. Methods that make participants stop to think about what they are being told were used liberally to retain participant attention. This meant that we were being shown how to effectively employ all the skills we were being taught as they were being taught to us. The modules covered learning/teaching styles, generating effective assessments, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, writing your teaching philosophy (a part of faculty application materials that I only learned about last year despite years of aspiration to teach), cultural awareness, active learning and inquiry based teaching, writing course objectives, teaching online, course development, and syllabus compilation. Each module was comprised of a narrated lecture, readings, and a written assignment or discussion board post requirement. Additional resources were also provided on the Virtual Learning Environment and Barbara Houtz frequently sent out class announcements about recent articles on STEM education and careers for PhDs.
I embarked on this online only course with a great deal of trepidation. Would I have the self-discipline to keep up with the material? Would I feel comfortable reaching out to the instructor with questions and comments? The answer is that with the help of an instructor devoted to keeping her participants involved and getting the most out of her course I was able to gain practical teaching skills in a remarkably short time.
TBQA-oSTEM Joint Networking Mixer and Panel
We are having our TBQA-oSTEM Joint Networking Mixer and Panel on Friday, 11/18 from 6:00-8:00pm in the Crane Room on the Medford Campus. Food will be provided!
TBQA Transgender Health Panel: December 1, 3pm, Sackler Auditorium
The Tufts Biomedical Queer Alliance (TBQA) invites you to come learn about the current state of transgender healthcare. We are pleased to welcome Dr. Anne Koch, DMD, to share her personal experiences of the healthcare system as both a patient and provider. A professional panel composed of Dr. Julie Thompson (Primary Care, Fenway Health); Dr. Stephanie Roberts (Endocrinology, Boston Children’s Hospital); and Cei Lambert (Trans Patient Advocate, Fenway Health) will join Dr. Koch in a panel discussion of the services they provide from both medical and social perspectives. A complimentary reception will follow.
TBBC Case Study Group – Mondays — 5-7PM, Jaharis 508
Practice solving cases, gain insight and tips, and learn more about the field of consulting.
TBBC Tufts Biomedical Data Science Club: Information Session – Tu Nov 29 — Time and location TBA
The Tufts Biomedical Data Science Club is a resource for students wishing to learn and apply programming techniques in order to tackle big data problems in the biomedical sciences. No programming experience required! The club hosts bi-monthly meetings, works on group projects, and provides opportunities to hear invited speakers and network with others interested in big data. Please email Matt Kelley at email@example.com with any questions.
TBBC Seminar Series: Liz O’Day, Founder and CEO of Claris Therapeutics – Tu Dec 6 — 5:30PM, Sackler 216A
Olaris is a venture-backed drug discovery company that uses a proprietary NMR-metabolite profiling platform to unlock aspects of human metabolism that could never before be analyzed. Focusing on diseases with limited to no treatment options, Olaris uses their technology to uncover previously unknown biomarkers and molecular targets to develop breakthrough therapies that fundamentally alter how these diseases are diagnosed and treated.
TBBC Consulting Seminar Series: Peter Bak, PhD – Tu Dec 13 — 5:30-7:30 PM, Sackler 221
Join us for a discussion with Peter Bak, Manager at Back Bay Life Science Advisors. Dr. Bak will talk about transitioning from a PhD program to life sciences consulting and career opportunities at BBLSA.
TBBC Health Advances presents, “Diagnostics Commercialization Challenges”
Th Oct 6: TBBC hosted Sackler alum and Partner at Health Advances, Dr. Donna Hochberg (SK03), who discussed the career path that led her from the bench to her current role as the leader of the firm’s Diagnostics and Life Science Tools Practice. She also led the group through a business case study exploring the challenges of bringing diagnostics to market.
TBBC Biotech Buzz with Hannah Mamuszka
F Oct 21: Hannah Mamuszka, picked by Future of Biopharma as one of 5 women to watch in Boston, and founder and CEO of Alva10, a company specializing in precision medicine, joined us for an informal conversation about the future of diagnostics, the latest news in biotech, her career, and Alva10.
TBBC, GSC, and the Sackler Dean’s Office Career Exploration Panel
Th Nov 3: A panel of senior graduate students provided insight about steps that newer students can take to prepare themselves for a variety of career paths, including: academic/industry science, teaching, entrepreneurship, science communication, policy, data science, venture capital, and consulting. (For a more in-depth recap, read the Insight article here!)
Tufts Mentoring Circles (TMC)
from Daniel WongCMP
This year, the graduate student and post-doc mentoring circle programs have merged together to form a larger, single Tufts Mentoring Circles program that started for the 2016-2017 academic year with a kick-off event on Thursday, October 6. In total, 71 people are participating in the Mentoring Circles program this year: 24 mentors, 21 graduate students, and 26 post-docs between the Boston and Medford campuses. These mentors, who are faculty, post-docs, senior graduate students, and industry and non-traditional professionals working in different fields, will be working in pairs to advise and facilitate discussions with small groups of post-doc and graduate student mentees over the course of this year. Mentors and mentees were matched together based on their personal and professional development interests indicated in the registration survey that was available online in September. Each group, or circle, will meet monthly on their own schedules to have discussions as they see fit on topics they choose. A closing event will be held toward the end of the academic year, likely in May or June 2017. Registration is now closed for the year, but for more information and to be notified when registration opens next year, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The graduate student-focused Tufts Mentoring Circles program was founded in November 2014 through the Sackler GSC as a peer mentoring program to serve the professional and personal development needs of graduate students, and also facilitate inter-program and -department communication and collaboration. Tufts Mentoring Circles is based on the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) Mentoring Circles program.
Remember student council elections in high school? Typically the most popular student running would win, but everyone was full of enthusiasm and excitement to attain those coveted positions! Fast-forward a decade or so to filling positions in organizations like the student council during graduate school and the picture looks dramatically different. We each take a turn, but we tend to do so grudgingly. High school was grueling, don’t get me wrong, but as the years progress the demands on our time change, the expectations are different, and the student body is less diverse (no more Poli Sci majors to eagerly take on the class president position).
Organizations that support fellow trainees and coworkers are typically run by volunteers. Each year we need people with a fresh perspective to step up and help with maintaining organizations such as the Graduate Student Council, the Sackler InSight, the Post-Doc Association, and, up here in Maine, the Research Fellows Association. There are so many important career and social events that just would not happen if these organizations were to disappear, not to mention how much smaller our voice within the school would be.
If you find yourself holding back from taking part in one of these community serving groups because you simply don’t have time between experiments, think of participation as a convenient way to get some career development in. Those of us who have been shoehorned into leadership positions can tell you firsthand how much rigorous practice we get in using the “soft skills”. In the business vernacular these include but are not limited to social and emotional intelligence, ability to develop people, delegation, structure and tactile development (how you get stuff done and how you tweak things to make sure it keep s getting done), style flexibility, and focus1.
Experience on a leadership team will create a tangible CV bullet that is particularly important for anyone interested in going into industry, but such experience will also be very helpful for people staying in academia (think committee and ancillary duties). It’s all in how you frame your skills to your audience.
Any of the students currently serving on committees or volunteering in other capacities will be more than happy to share their experiences, what their responsibilities and time commitments have been, contacts they have made, and what they have gotten out of their service in terms of personal and professional development.
As graduate students, we all know what it is like to present our research to a scientific audience that is not familiar with our research topic and the accompanying task of making the research and larger implications relatable. Most likely, however, the majority of us are not familiar with presenting in detail our research topic to a general audience: those who don’t know what the difference between DNA and RNA is, or what ‘epithelial’ means, or how cell culture works.
This spring, a group of Sackler students were presented with the opportunity–or challenge–to do so through a collaboration with Emerson College. Seven graduate students from various programs were paired with undergraduate students–whose majors ranged from journalism, TV production, video production, and animation–enrolled in an upper-level science course focusing on science media/communication. The main goal was for the Sackler participants to serve as scientist contacts with whom the Emerson students would put together three science-centric media pieces. The first two were written, one being a profile piece on the graduate student scientist who the undergraduates were paired with and the second being an article reviewing, explaining, and reporting on the graduate student’s research topic and field. The information gleaned from both of these interview experiences also culminated in planning and executing a final project in video form. These videos ranged from animated science-explainer videos to mini-films profiling the scientist collaborator, showcasing the broad interests and talents of both student groups.
The course instructor, Dr. Amy Vashlishan Murray–who earned her PhD in geneticsfrom Harvard University–is a strong advocate for comparing, contrasting, and combining science and media. Her passion for science communication started in college and grew deeper in graduate school where she participated in various outreach programs, including the Science in the News lecture series. When she started teaching at Emerson, she created this ‘Science in Translation’ course as a way for her–from the perspective as first a scientist and second a communicator–to make an impact on future contributors to media and communication fields. In particular she designed the course for depth, as it was one of the first upper-level science classes to be introduced to the curriculum at Emerson. She wanted to help art-focused students find “the place of science in their world” by facilitating a “peek behind the curtain” of scientific research.
In addition to teaching, Dr. Vashlishan Murray initiated Boston’s branch of the Ask for Evidence campaign. This program, which is sponsored by the organizations Voice of Young Science USA and Sense About Science, seeks to have members of the public investigate consumer-directed advertisements making science-based claims and test whether those claims are indeed accurate. This effort dually challenges the public to think critically about scientific claims while also challenges those who use scientific claims to do so more carefully and accurately. Her work related to Ask for Evidence helped her win the 2014 Paul Shin award from the Washington, D.C.-based grassroots group Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), which honors trendsetters and pioneers in the science communication field.
Dr. Vashlishan Murray took a flexible and welcoming approach to the class, letting it serve the needs of her students and science collaborators in equal turn; she frequently took into account and implemented suggestions from both groups throughout the course. The Sackler students started off the semester by attending an improv class with the Emerson students to pull down any initial social barriers and to encourage critical thinking about how we communicate not just with words but with movement and facial expressions and how one-on-one versus group communication works. We also were invited to many of the course’s classes, some discussion-based and others in which guest lecturers spoke, including science communicators from Story Collider and Stat News. The tables turned when we were the ones presenting in the form of 8-minute research flash talks, which the Emerson students critiqued based on how well we communicated the science for a general audience.
The majority of our time for this collaboration, however, was spent working with the students themselves. The semester-long relationship of in-person interviews, email correspondence, planning and filming sessions for the final video project, and discussions following the completion of each media piece facilitated deeper understanding and engagement on both sides.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm (for the scientific content and for the cause of science communication) expressed by many, if not most, of the students in the class,” Melissa LaBonty, one of the program collaborators and a CMDB graduate student, commented when asked about her experience with the Emerson students. “I was also happy to learn that given the correct information and background, a lot of non-scientists can become just as passionate about our scientific interests as we are!”
Dr. Vashlishan Murray was able to share some of the Emerson students’ responses and noted that the majority of them mentioned the collaborative aspect of the course as the most impactful. In particular, she highlighted that many of them described their experience this semester as finding “the humanity in science.”
As for what future iterations of the course will be like, Dr. Vashlishan Murray mentioned she’d like to delve deeper into communication theory in relation to science for the Emerson students. For the scientist collaborators, more feedback about their communication skills and more involvement with the guest speakers are things she’d like to expand upon. Both additions would strengthen an already engaging and transformative experience that this course provided, enriching the knowledge gain for both the science-focused and communication-focused student groups.
Inspired by a conversation between post-docs at a science and education conference, the Tufts’ TEACRS (Training in Education and Critical Research Skills) and TII (Tufts Innovation Institute) worked together to host a community outreach event this May. The “Meet the Scientist” event took place on the Medford campus and consisted of a science faculty-hosted panel session and an activity session, with attendees including local families and students from all levels of schooling. The panel session allowed community members to ask insightful and probing questions of Tufts faculty that facilitated an open, honest, and engaging conversation about science and science research. Following this, the activity session consisted of six stations hosted by TEACRS post-doc trainees. Children, teens and adults alike had the opportunity to play with silk and DNA legos, to look at flies and talk about circadian rhythms, to isolate some of their own DNA, and to watch how music played from a mobile phone could make a cockroach’s leg muscles move.
With a strong turnout and enthusiastic hosts as well as attendees, this event succeeded in strengthening bridges between Tufts’ scientists and the local community. This type of connection is a significant component in narrowing the gap between the public and their understanding of science and strengthening trust in scientists and the work we do.
This two-part editorial by the Insight team seeks to open a discussion between faculty, students, postdocs and the school administration about whether the school is prepared for meeting the changes in the future of PhD holders. The first part will address the current available resources and the unmet needs of the students/postdocs, and will also explore some possible solutions. The second part, to be published in the next issue of the InSight, will carry the opinions of all parties involved collected through a survey and communication, which will serve as a stepping stone towards meaningful changes that will benefit us all.
Editors’ Note, 4/11/16, 1:30 pm – The article has been modified to include corrected information regarding the BEST award application by Sackler. Previously it had stated that Sackler had applied for the BEST award and was not awarded due to lack of proper infrastructure. However, after communicating with the Dean’s office, we have learned that Sackler had applied in conjunction with other Tufts graduate schools and it is speculated the application was not funded partly due to complex administrative structure and evaluation and dissemination plans. The changes are reflected in the article.
The Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) is a degree awarded to recognize original contributions to collective human knowledge. Thus, it is no surprise that the next step after getting a PhD is to join the bastions where such knowledge is curated and cultivated, i.e., to pursue an academic career. However, given the current structure of an academic job and the nature of academic tenure, a bottleneck in academic positions have taken firm root in the last years. According to Nature, the number of postdocs have jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012 while the number of tenured or full time faculty positions in the US has either remained stagnant or fallen. While the debate on how to improve the lives of postdocs and other non-faculty PhD holders rages on and restructuring of federal funding for scientific research is ongoing, the increasing number of PhDs leaving the traditional path and venturing into other professions is readily apparent.
In recent years, the PhD degree has been developed as a marketable asset with a accompanied with a powerful skill set — the ability to think critically, solve problems and troubleshoot, be organized and detail-oriented. The idea that the skills required for obtaining a PhD are also recognized as required to be successful in any other profession, and is now being echoed by career counselors. While industry research positions were once spoken about in hushed voices before, these positions are now not only coveted, but other non-research jobs are also becoming more prominent in seminars and career advice panels for biomedical graduate students and postdocs.
This trend is also evident within the graduate student population here at Sackler School of Biomedical Graduate Sciences, where more than half the alumni have pursued non-academic careers. As the funding climate struggles to recover and academic positions become more scarce, the question arises of whether the existing model of career development for student and postdoctoral trainees is sufficient to ensure future success and achieving their goals. It is apparent that career development training outside of academia is required, but the support for this by the curriculum and administration at the Sackler School seems to lag behind our peer institutions, and even our colleagues on the Medford campus have access to the Tufts Career Center and the students in the Fletcher School have their own Career Services office.
Resources currently available for students at Sackler interested pursuing non-academic careers are mostly driven and organized by the students themselves. These student-led initiatives have produced a full roster of seminars and workshops focusing on such career options held nearly weekly between the Career Paths Committee of the Sackler Graduate Student Council (GSC) and the Tufts Biomedical Business Club (TBBC). These groups have become increasingly active over the past few years, with their efforts growing into independent events like the Tufts New England Case Competition (TUNECC), as well as collaborations with the Tufts Postdoctoral Association and student groups in the School of Medicine. Additionally, the Tufts Mentoring Circles group has provided students peer guidance and spaces to discuss such career options among themselves. Every student initiative listed here has sought more interactions with Sackler alumni, but the information to facilitate that exchange is not readily available. Student leaders at Sackler have expended great effort to build the career resources the student body needs, but these efforts are reaching the limit of what they can achieve and will only be short term and partial solutions without additional resources and support infrastructure. Some of this could be built by students, like shared repositories for maintaining records and thus institutional memory so energy is expended solving new problems instead of rehashing old ones. The most important piece, however, cannot be done by students alone: an accurate, current database of Sackler alumni and their occupations that is accessible and searchable.
We appreciate that the Dean’s Office has recently increased its support of these student efforts, but believe that more can be done. An increased contribution to co-sponsorship from partial funding of one or two events with the GSC annually to a series of three annual workshops and career panels over the past two academic years, and the interactions between a handful of students with Sackler alumni through the new “Day in the Life” program are good starting points. However, the student body and Sackler as an institution would derive greater benefit and return on an investment in career development and advising staff, similar to those available at the Fletcher School and the Medford campus, but scaled for Sackler. It would be mutually beneficial, as it works to the advantage of a school to have an engaged student body that will recognize and appreciate the school’s support in shaping their careers as alumni. Furthermore, this infrastructure could be a common point for alumni to rely upon and connect with students and each other.
The lack of formal career development resources at Sackler has been identified by peer reviewers as an area for improvement, and puts us at a competitive disadvantage for student recruitment and securing grant funding. Prospective students actively seek graduate programs that provide career development, and among the recommendations made by the review committee for the newly-merged CMDB program were formal non-academic career training options and an expansion of extramural internships through the alumni network and faculty connections. Funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) evaluate grant applications on this aspect of graduate training as well. For example, F31 grant applications to support graduate students require descriptions of career training and development; the proposed changes will essentially strengthen the Sackler students’ applications and may increase the number of extramurally funded students, alleviating the pressure on the school. A more recent example includes the NIH Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) awards, a funding opportunity established in 2013 in response to the state of the biomedical workforce and to prepare trainees for diverse career paths that utilize their PhD training. Boston University received a BEST award in 2014 for its biomedical research programs in part because of its existing career development and support infrastructure. It should be noted that Sackler, along with other graduate schools at Tufts, had applied for the BEST award. While the reviewers had found the application to be strong in certain areas and to have “potential for high impact”, they also noted weaknesses that included “complex administrative structure and the evaluation and dissemination plans”, which could partly be responsible for the award not being funded (source – email communication with Sackler Dean’s office). These issues can be addressed with the establishment of the proposed infrastructure development and can further strengthen such grant applications in the future.
The faculty mentor plays an important role in shaping a mentee’s future career — the mentor’s support and guidance are essential for the mentee’s career development. While Sackler faculty are generally supportive of students and postdocs, it is critical for them to come forward and actively support mentees’ who choose to pursue careers outside of academia and research. The Greater Boston area is known as a hub for biotechnology research and business, with companies specializing in everything from drug development to consulting. Many recent and local alumni maintain a connection to Tufts through their faculty mentors absent a career development office at Sackler, and both students and postdocs would greatly benefit if the faculty mentors shared these connections, and offered guidance and support on leaving academia.
The current funding climate and the stagnation of academic positions, along with the burgeoning postdoc crisis, amount to conditions favorable for a paradigm shift. We cannot just keep focusing on the academic jobs traditionally held by PhDs. In order to better adapt to this changing landscape of post-doctoral work, the students, postdocs, faculty, and administration need to work together to bring about improvements to the environment at Sackler, specifically:
Developing an accessible, searchable, up-to-date database of Sackler alumni that can be used by students, postdocs and faculty looking for career advice and connections.
Faculty support in the form of guidance and connections in developing non-academic careers.
Career development support staff for students from the Tufts and Sackler administration, so as to cultivate an engaged alumni population.
Comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this editorial can be left on either the InSight blog or via this online form: Anonymous feedback form: http://goo.gl/forms/PXEfcLfgeX
A survey to collect more detailed data from the student body will be conducted by the Sackler GSC in the coming weeks.
In an effort to continually explore the interface between science and business, Tufts Biomedical Business Club recently caught up with Dr. Zach Scheiner, an Associate at RA Capital Management, for a discussion about his experience in the healthcare investment industry.
RA Capital Management is a crossover fund manager dedicated to evidence-based investing in public and private healthcare and life science companies. Prior to his current role at RA Capital, Zach worked as a Science Officer at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where he managed a portfolio of research programs concentrated in translational neuroscience. He holds a BS in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University, and a PhD in Neurobiology and Behavior from the University of Washington.
As an Associate for RA Capital, Zach’s efforts are realized through the team’s core research division, TechAtlas. This division is a scientifically trained team that maps out competitive landscapes in a continual effort to survey the landscape and identify emerging therapeutics and technologies that will reshape how physicians treat disease. The interview is edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell me about the career path that led you to your job. How did you become involved with RA Capital Management?
My interest in biomedical science and research began as an undergrad, when I had several summer research internships and was exposed to a few different fields of research. At the same time I had my first opportunity to teach science classes at a local high school and quickly realized that I also had a passion for teaching. After graduating, I decided to teach middle school science and math for a year (which turned into three) before returning to research and going to grad school.
I attended the Neurobiology & Behavior graduate program at The University of Washington in Seattle. My thesis work focused on the molecular basis of memory and drug addiction. Though I enjoyed my time as a graduate student, by my fourth year I began to realize that the academic career path and spending more years at the lab bench were not for me. I really enjoyed reading primary literature, planning experiments, and reviewing/analyzing data, so as I finished up graduate school I began looking at alternatives where I might be able to incorporate these interests as well as leverage my scientific background in a non-research capacity.
I found a great opportunity at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in San Francisco. CIRM funds stem cell research at institutions throughout California with the goal of advancing promising stem cell based therapies into clinical trials and ultimately to patients. I began as a science writer and quickly moved to a position managing a portfolio of translational research programs. In this position, I worked closely with funded scientists to help set milestones and success criteria, assess progress, and, however possible, facilitate success. In my six years at CIRM I learned a tremendous amount about the drug development process, gained experience reviewing and analyzing data, and developed management skills, all of which have been invaluable in my current role at RA Capital.
My move to RA Capital was the result of my wife being offered an assistant professorship at Brown University. In preparation for the move from one coast to the other I reached out to everyone in my network, including an old lab-mate I had stayed in touch with from graduate school who was now an Associate for RA Capital. I had a long-time interest in biotech investing, nurtured by my dad, and had been learning about this part of the industry in my spare time. Luckily, RA was hiring and the rest is history. For me, RA Capital was a perfect fit. I can put my communication and analytical skills from teaching, grad school and CIRM to good use and I love staying immersed in cutting-edge science while learning more about the investment side of the biotech industry.
What are the duties/functions/responsibilities of your job?
As an Associate with RA Capital, my primary role involves creating dendrograms (mind-maps) of specific diseases or capabilities within the healthcare industry. These comprehensive landscape maps take all the available drugs, both on the market and still in development, and put them into the context of current standard of care and unmet needs. They help our team fully appreciate and contextualize the market potential of assets and companies before making investments. Mapping out a disease landscape is a research-intensive process that involves surveying the literature, meeting with companies with assets in the space, speaking directly to physicians, attending scientific conferences, and analyzing data. The process can take several months to complete but the maps are never truly finished. Therapeutic landscapes are constantly evolving, new data are released and new licensing and acquisition deals are made. Our maps are equally dynamic and a lot of my time is spent staying up to date with the latest news and data coming out in the areas I cover.
In addition to mapping, Associates also join the investment team in diligence projects on specific investment opportunities. Our maps are a great way of contextualizing drugs and their competitors and can help our team identify potential new opportunities but it’s always critical to dig deeper before making an investment. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is seeing all the work I’ve put in researching and understanding a therapeutic space pay off with insights that are potentially investable, or that directly benefit a diligence project.
On a day-to-day basis I also survey industry news and the scientific literature not only to keep up with the science but to search for new investment opportunities that could be licensable for an RA Capital portfolio company or even form the basis for a new company. I also enjoy being involved in the recruiting process at RA and playing a small role in shaping the future of the company.
What is the most rewarding part about your job?
Personally, the most rewarding part of my work is knowing that we are investing in companies that are developing therapies for patients that really need them! These companies often have no marketed drugs and need capital to advance their assets through clinical trials and into the hands of patients. When I think about the work that I do, I know I am helping to identify great science, underappreciated drugs, and promising new opportunities. And I hope that by influencing where RA Capital’s dollars are invested, I’m impacting the whole healthcare ecosystem in a positive way.
What experiences best prepared you for your job?
I think all of my previous work experiences helped prepare me for RA Capital, the first of which was teaching. Communication is such an essential skill and getting an opportunity to develop this early in my career has been a huge benefit. Having controlled a classroom every day for three years definitely makes communicating with colleagues, companies and scientific experts a little easier. Effective communication is a vital part of this job.
The second experience is my time spent as a graduate student. In graduate school I learned how to rigorously analyze data, both my own and from the literature. I developed my critical thinking and analytical skills and the ability to quickly identify key questions, design key experiments, and understand the limitations of a study.
Lastly, at CIRM I learned the process of moving a drug from the lab to the market and everything in between. I also regularly participated in grant review meetings with panels of scientists, clinicians, and patient advocates. These meetings gave me the opportunity to learn what was truly important to each group. While the views and opinions would often vary between the groups, one key takeaway was that for a drug to succeed, doctors have to want to prescribe it and patients have to want to use it. My experience at CIRM taught me to evaluate drugs with the patient perspective in mind; new therapies are worthless unless patients will use them, and sometimes improvements that appear marginal can be very meaningful to patients.
What skills or personal characteristics do you feel contribute most to success in this industry?
Very often, investment firms require that applicants have a background in finance, an MBA, or prior experience in the industry. That is not the case at RA Capital. I wouldn’t say any particular background or degree is required, but there are certainly skills that are critical. Analytical skills, for example. The ability to rigorously analyze data and quickly get to the “meat” of primary literature or a clinical data set is invaluable. Another key skill is effective writing and communication. Much of my day is spent writing and talking. I am continuously expressing my thoughts and providing analysis and it is important to do so concisely and effectively.
In terms of personal characteristics, I would highlight skepticism. Being skeptical is a common trait among scientists due to the nature of research, but this skill is especially important when meeting with companies. Every company is trying to convince us that their assets or data are the best. Skepticism is required to separate the pitch from the quality of the science.
Humility is another important personal characteristic. To put it simply, in something as complicated as drug development, it’s easy to be wrong! There are so many variables to consider, and science changes so quickly; it’s essential to have an open mind and be humble about everything you do not know.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an associate for RA Capital Management?
I think the largest challenge I face is simply the pace of the industry and science itself. There is new data coming out all the time; from company press releases, new primary literature, scientific conferences—the amount of information can be overwhelming. Developing the ability to quickly assimilate and analyze new information is the biggest challenge. But it’s also one of the things I enjoy most about my job. In this field you have to enjoy constant learning and also get good at processing information quickly enough to inform an investment decision. The fast pace is challenging but exciting.
What are some other opportunities within RA Capital Management for scientists aside from the TechAtlas Research Division?
Most opportunities for PhD trained scientists are within our TechAtlas research team. This team is made up primarily of PhD trained scientists in either Associate or Scientific Writer positions. The Science Writers work closely with the Associates as they build the story of their map, acting as a thought partner to develop the key insights for standard of care, unmet needs, and investable opportunities for each disease. As members of the research team gain experience, they can specialize in one of several areas, including early-stage assets, strategic analysis of licensing and partnerships, and equity analysis.
For somebody interested in pursuing this career, what would be your advice to best prepare them?
I would highly recommend that PhD candidates supplement their education in three areas: biostatistics, clinical trials, and FDA regulatory pathways. These topics are not always emphasized or even addressed in many graduate programs. A working knowledge of biostatistics goes a long way; being able to understand statistical pitfalls and the pros and cons of different analyses is invaluable. I would also recommend becoming familiar with clinical trials: the general FDA requirements for advancing drugs into Phase 1 trials and the typical development path for new therapies in your field of interest. Few graduate students get exposed to these areas. I would strongly suggest looking beyond the specific questions of own research project to get an understanding of the broader context: the standard of care for the disease, unmet needs, and competing approaches. If your research isn’t disease or therapy focused, choose a disease of interest or imagine potential applications of your work and research those. Putting new research and data into a broad context is a lot of what we do, so the earlier you can start practicing, the better prepared you will be.
Teleconferencing from 100 miles away into classes, meetings, and extracurricular events is all well and good, but sometimes you just feel the need to practice schmoozing in person. The Sackler Graduate Student Council holds really relevant and useful networking events, and much of the content of these events can be taken advantage of through a teleconference connection, but it is hard to beat the rapport that is established when chatting, or bemoaning, face to face with colleagues over hors d’oeuvres. For anyone who does the bulk of their work away from the main campus of their organization it is imperative to find and cultivate local career enhancement resources. Not only does this give you access to opportunities in your local sphere, it also improves your connection with the members of the satellite facility.
For Sackler students studying at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI) in Scarborough, ME this resource is available in the form of the MMCRI Research Fellows Association (RFA). Because MMCRI is a relatively small institute, we currently have about twenty principal investigators, we have a fairly small number of postdoctoral fellows and even fewer graduate students at any given time. The RFA was originally founded to serve both groups and has recently expanded to serve non-faculty scientific staff and technicians as well. These groups share many of the same needs in terms of networking and professional development events, so the inclusiveness of the organization has worked well for us thus far.
The RFA leadership team and active members are constantly kept busy to ensure we are providing meaningful events each month. Here’s just a small taste of what we do:
• Increase MMCRI visibility in the community by sending members to participate in local career fairs and the Maine Science Festival
• Organize scientific talks from speakers suggested and voted on by RFA members
• Hold professional development workshops such as “Intro to LinkedIn” and “The Art of Schmoozing” lead by University of New England’s Career Services Coordinator, Jeff Nevers
• Maintain a library of material on resume writing, cover letter writing, grant writing, and networking advice
• Work closely with MMCRI and MMC Human Resources to utilize hospital resources such as MMC’s Training and Organizational Development department for the benefit of our members
• Poll members annually on which of their professional development needs are being met and which still need to be filled
One of our newest events is also one of my favorites. In the spirit of positive reinforcement we recognize and celebrate either a mentor or a pair of researchers (one technician and one academic) of the year. This occasion allows the RFA to show appreciation for mentors and colleagues who demonstrate superlative qualities. Appreciation in the case of researchers includes $500 from the RFA discretionary fund (supported by our fundraising efforts) to participate in further career enhancement.
MMCRI may be 100 miles away from the biotech hub that is Boston, but we’re no backwater slouches when it comes to career enhancement and professional development!