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Closing the Gap: Career Training for Scientists Beyond the Bench

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Author: Catherine Cheng | Category: Beyond The Bench | Biology of Aging | Biology of Aging | April 02, 2018

The Commercialization Catalysts (Comcats) are a group of students who work with the Office of Technology Commercialization on campus. Catherine Cheng, one of the group’s original founders, talks about the genesis of the group.

One of my favorite quotes is from physicist Stanislaw Ulam on the topic of nonlinear dynamics: "Using a term like nonlinear science is like referring to the bulk of zoology as the study of non-elephant animals."

As graduate students, we often encounter a similar false dichotomy between academia and “industry” when we talk about career plans. This type of conceptualization implies that an “industry” job entails a career path as narrowly defined as the academic tenure track. To be fair, most people probably use "industry” as shorthand for a "research scientist at pharmaceutical/medical device company.” However, that barely scratches the surface of the spectrum of careers for scientists outside of academia. There has been considerable discussion about the skills gap between highly skilled and motivated scientists and the jobs they’re looking for outside of academia and limited post-grad career development in general. This gap is due in part to lack of exposure and diverse career training opportunities.

The idea for a student-led consulting group that would address that gap began in late 2014. San Antonio’s very own 80/20 Foundation sponsored a "3 Day Startup" weekend at Geekdom, a local tech-centered co-working space. Since the theme was Biotech/Med Tech, I signed up to participate along with other students and faculty from the health science center. It was invigorating to spend a weekend working with a whole cohort of budding entrepreneurs as we put our business ideas to the test using lean startup methodology. After 3DS, I wanted to keep the momentum going, and I definitely wasn’t the only one who felt that way — the other graduate students from UT Health and I continued meeting and began brainstorming ideas for a student-run organization. We drew our primary inspiration from student consulting groups at other institutions like BALSA and miLEAD. 

We must give credit where it’s due, and the GSBS has seen some really nice additions in the time that I’ve been a graduate student here (the development of the Career Advisory Council and their related events, for example). And, of course, graduate training develops many excellent transferable skills. In a job interview, however, it’s hard to beat hands-on experience when it comes to being able to speak about a specific project that really added value to an organization. In short, we wanted to create a training opportunity that would close the skills gap between PhD students and careers outside of academia. It was clear from the beginning that we wanted to form a student consulting group that could assist local startups with product development and market research/validation. We initially considered operating independently of the university, but following the suggestion of one of our members who was already interning with the University’s Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC), we recognized the opportunity for a strategic alliance and decided to stay on campus. The next year, we made a formal pitch to John Fritz, the Associate Director of Technology Commercialization.

As a group, we’ve benefited from topical courses on campus. We were able to recruit our core group very quickly from classes including "Topics in Translational Medical Product Development” (taught by Dr. Andrea Giuffrida) and "Introduction to Intellectual Property and Technology Commercialization” (taught by Prof. Leon Bunegin) and the "Topics in Translational Science” seminar series. Some of these courses tend to pop in and out of existence from semester to semester, but they are useful learning resources when they are available.

Under the outstanding mentorship of our advisor John Fritz, we have been able to support the OTC in a variety of projects. We've produced marketing materials, helped write business plans, assisted early startups in their search for potential executives, investors, and licensees. Individually, our members have also completed patentability analyses and participated in both regional and national entrepreneurial training programs with technologies developed at the university.

There’s still a lot we’d like to do as a group. Our focus to date has been on marketing and product/business development. I’d like to see this group help the OTC create a kit that will streamline the startup formation process here at the university. From a more traditional consulting perspective, I hope we can eventually train interested members how to perform the formal case studies that you’d see in strategic or management consulting. Our model is working — alumni of our group have successfully landed jobs in business consulting, venture capital, and technology transfer. As our group continues to grow, we will continue to think of ways to expand our training/learning opportunities modularly and truly close the skills gap by specialty.

If you’re interesting in learning more about how you can be a part of the Commercialization Catalysts, contact Catherine (chengcj@livemail.uthscsa.edu).

Photo credit: Southwest I-CORPS 2018

About the Author

Catherine Cheng is a student in the Biology of Aging Ph.D. program. She is also an avid member of the Science Policy Interest group. The "Beyond The Bench" series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 



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