Students Talk Biotech

It was in the spring of 2001 that three PhD students at the University of British Columbia (UBC)--David Oliver, Steve Seredick, and Ali Tehrani--found themselves sitting around a lunch table, discussing questions about careers in biotech R&D that their graduate education had not provided suitable answers for. Questions like, what kinds of jobs might I get in the biotechnology sector? Would I find them fulfilling? Who would I be working with? And where can I find the answers to these and other questions?

"You get a couple years into your PhD and you begin to wonder what else is out there," recounts Seredick on his initial thoughts about his post-PhD future. All three students admit to having the feeling that they were on the "outside looking in," wondering who and what was beyond academia's walls. Graduate school was training them to be great scientists, but they felt uninformed about how R&D industries in general--and the biotech industry in particular--actually work.

The trio's solution was to create the Student Biotechnology Network (SBN) as "a mechanism where we could find answers to these questions," says Oliver, a third-year PhD student in UBC's department of microbiology and immunology at the time. SBN's role as a nonprofit society is to provide a forum for students to explore their interests in careers, both in academia and in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors. Oliver envisioned SBN as an "an environment where we could network with our peers, interact and establish mentorships with members of the local biotech community, and spearhead projects that we were interested in."

"A Great Idea"

When the three took their initial idea to their fellow students and members of the local biotech community, the response was unanimous--it was, they all said, "a great idea." From that point on, Seredick says, "The important thing for us was to actually make it happen, and to make sure the group survived."

SBN began with a written proposal in which Oliver, Seredick, and Tehrani described their vision (to deepen students' understanding of biotech career options), their philosophy (an organization run by students for students), and their goals (to bring together biotech firms and their future employees before the interviews even start). "Support for the proposal was incredible, and we succeeded in assembling an all-star advisory panel with significant wisdom and clout," says Oliver.

On the advisory panel were a range of people from the local community, such as professor emeritus Julian Davies and various deans from UBC; Paul Stinson, executive director of the industry association, BC Biotech; and lawyer Joe Garcia. "They were all important figures in getting us started. In particular, Joe Garcia helped us to register as a nonprofit organization with the BC provincial registry and protect our interests," Oliver explains.

Having garnered the support of local biotech companies, the trio set out to introduce students to the potential of the SBN by simply, but uniquely, asking them if they wanted to personally get to know their potential employers. "Again, the support was outstanding, and a great group of people stepped up" to help get the society going, recalls Oliver. Despite some comings and goings early on, "a few people really stuck with us" he adds, citing Ed Kim and Michelle Brazas, both of whom are still members of the SBN executive.

SBN brings together students from a wide range of departments and professional schools relating to biotechnology. Although its membership is currently limited to students, staff, and faculty at UBC, SBN has attracted quite a following, with approximately 200 members and 160 alumni. Added to this following are the support and participation of the local biotech community, as well as students from the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, and the BC Institute of Technology. As the SBN Web site states, "the Network's primary goal is to provide an environment where people can get the answers they need in order to make well-informed career decisions." It is a place where students can talk biotech not just among themselves, but also with the CEOs, employees, researchers, and professors that are currently in their midst, ultimately learning straight from the source.

SBN's first project was a seminar series entitled "Start me up," in which individuals, mainly CEOs and CSOs, spoke about their experiences in building biotech companies. "The speakers were inspiring, insightful, and honest; openly addressing questions pertaining to the good, the bad, and the ugly of biotech," Oliver explains. Oliver, Seredick, and Tehrani all agree that this kind of open dialogue could only be possible within a forum like SBN.

Oliver relates one of his memorable moments about the multiple lecture series that followed. It concerned a seminar by Mr. Percy Schmeiser, a farmer from Saskatchewan who was engaged in a legal battle with the agrochemical giant Monsanto over patent infringement and the right to grow genetically modified canola. "An excellent speaker, Mr. Schmeiser drew attention to many of the economic, environmental, legal, and ethical aspects of biotechnology," Oliver recalls, going on to say, "over the course of [Schmeiser's seminar], I began to appreciate aspects of biotechnology that look beyond economic incentive to the value of unbiased information and education." SBN is continuing to make headway in providing the latter, with two new seminar series planned for this year; a "biotech exchange" for career networking in March 2004; and an every-other-month career-oriented news publication, dubbed Splice, which debuts next month.

Overcoming Early Challenges

The organization did suffer some early growing pains, and the first real challenge came when it was time to find sponsors to fund the seminars, events, and computer equipment they needed to make their vision of the SBN a reality. "We didn't want to compromise the autonomy of the group," says Oliver, by aligning themselves too closely with individual companies. Finding funding wasn't all that easy, he says. "Although people were enthusiastic, when it came time to put pen to paper it didn't always pan out." In the end, they found the money they needed as biotech companies took advantage of the chance to meet a future work force, while also supporting the growth of the BC biotechnology community. Genome BC is now the core sponsor of SBN.

As luck would have it, the second dilemma for the SBN executive was "the tremendous support for the initiative," Oliver continues. "We were simply overwhelmed with contacts and meetings, almost to the point where the SBN was becoming a part-time job for us," he related, adding that learning to manage commitments and time was crucial early on.

Although frustrating at times, these growing pains did end up driving the "evolution of the organization" to what it is today, while in the process teaching everyone involved many of the skills required in future biotechnology-related jobs. "The group has adapted well, and as long as we remain flexible, the SBN will continue to provide students with great experiences and opportunities," declares Oliver.

"I am glad to say that the SBN provided me with an insider's view of the corporate world of biotechnology," says Tehrani about what he gained from the creation of SBN. Oliver concurs, "The experience has been incredible. Involvement [in SBN] included leadership, management experience, career information, networking opportunities, and knowledge."

One thing the co-founders would like to see happen is the creation of SBN chapters at other universities, which would allow interaction on a national and perhaps even global scale. For any students interested in taking this on, the trio says, "Go for it!" Their advice is to gather a group of motivated individuals, keep your purpose in mind, and then get talking. And SBN is always there to help, says Oliver. "We are more than happy to provide advice and practical tips to get your group going."

What does the future for SBN hold? "You could accuse me of reductionism," quips Seredick, "but it's very simple. The SBN is a volunteer organization. It'll keep moving as long as people are willing to get involved. And I don't really know of any easier way for a grad student to thoroughly explore their options before the 'next step' is upon them."

As for the three co-founders, it is mission accomplished: They are all in the closing years of their PhDs and happy to be looking for a job now that they know exactly what is out there. "I hope that I've enhanced my career prospects, although I am not sure. I haven't had time to ask anyone for a job," says Oliver, "But I now know what my options are, and there are many. The future looks good ... I'm looking forward to it."

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