• Caltech students in the NIH Biotechnology Leadership Predoctoral Training Program visit the J. Craig Venter Institute.
    Credit: Photo courtesy of the Rosen Center for Bioengineering at Caltech
  • Caltech students in the NIH Biotechnology Leadership Predoctoral Training Program visit the company Illumina.
    Credit: Photo courtesy of the Rosen Center for Bioengineering at Caltech

Graduate Students Dip Their Toes into Industry

Rosen Center helps prepare biotechnology-focused graduate students for possible industry careers

For graduate students in the chemical and biological sciences, the question of what comes next career-wise is not always easy to answer. Often, students waffle between staying in academia or moving on to jobs at pharmaceutical or other companies.

At Caltech, graduate students in fields related to biotechnology can find answers through an industry-based training program, funded by the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and administered by Caltech's Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center. The Rosen Center, established in 2008 through a gift from the Benjamin M. Rosen Family Foundation, is a hub for bioengineering disciplines across campus, including applied physics, chemical engineering, synthetic biology, and computer science. It funds faculty members with interdisciplinary research projects in addition to graduate fellows in the training program.  

"We saw that there was a gap for graduate students in receiving biotechnology industry training and experience," says Frances H. Arnold, director of the Rosen Center and Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry and Bioengineering at Caltech. "The training exposes students to industrially relevant research questions and experimental techniques early in their graduate careers, and lets them experience what it's like to translate academic research into technology and products useful in medicine."

The program, called the NIH Biotechnology Leadership Predoctoral Training Program, is now in its third year and offers selected graduate students—about five each year—the chance to complete internships in industry, participate in career development workshops, and visit biotechnology workplaces. For example, in February of 2017, 11 students visited Illumina and the J. Craig Venter Institute, both in the San Diego area.

Joshua Brake, a Caltech graduate student in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS), did his internship in 2016 at Instrumentation Laboratory, a medical device company in Massachusetts, where he worked on developing new technologies for benchtop blood diagnostic tools—or, as Brake calls them, "Star Trek-like tricorders" for emergency rooms. "I feel lucky to have participated in this program because it's somewhat rare to have the opportunity to take industry internships as part of PhD programs in science," he says. The experience, he adds, gave him a taste of what industry jobs are like—and helped confirm his preference toward academic positions after graduation.

"I like the cutting-edge aspect of academia," Brake says, "This is where we innovate and push the boundaries of what is possible. From this perspective, the internship will really help me in future partnerships between academia and industry—now I've experienced how they think."

Another graduate student in the program, Zach Shao, who is in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering (BBE), is leaning in the opposite direction: toward industry. He interned at Roche Sequencing Solutions in Pleasanton, California, where he worked on personalized medicines for cancer treatments—a method that involves sequencing the DNA of patients.

"In industry, you really have to think about a problem from all angles to make sure everything is safe before moving into patients," he says. "Having this internship helped me realize that my personal research interests are a great fit for industry."

Shao says that the program's workshops and monthly lunches are a valuable way to meet scientists in other divisions. Currently, the program includes students in BBE, EAS, and the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

"One of the missions of the Rosen Center is to spawn collaborations between different disciplines," says Kim Mayer, executive director of the Rosen Center. "The trainees in this program meet regularly to discuss their research, and they learn to recognize areas with potential for collaboration and take those ideas back to their own labs across campus."

To learn more about the Rosen Center—which has also awarded pilot grants to 18 faculty members across disciplines so far—visit http://www.rosen.caltech.edu.

To read more about NIGMS biotechnology predoctoral training programs, visit https://www.nigms.nih.gov/Training/InstPredoc/Pages/PredocDesc-Biotechnology.aspx.




Written by Whitney Clavin