Skip to main content

On the Road Again

Posted by on Monday, November 27, 2023 in Announcements .

This article was originally published in the 2021- 2022 Annual Report

By Haley Stubbs, Graduate Student

In the spring of 2018, the ASPIRE Program launched an initiative called ASPIRE on the Road to give graduate students and postdoctoral trainees an up-close look at careers in the biopharma industry. Ten trainees traveled to Boston for the inaugural program to site-visit companies and network with alumni. Building on the success of that program, twelve trainees flew to San Diego for a similar experience in 2019. In the spring of 2020, a return trip to Boston was planned for the 3rd annual ASPIRE on the Road when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the ASPIRE team to cancel the trip.

With a nearly two-year lapse of “in-person” networking opportunities due to the COVID pandemic, trainees were eager for a chance to make up for lost time preparing for their next career steps. As a result, nearly 40 applicants applied for the opportunity to travel to Boston for the May 2-4, 2022 trip. I was fortunate enough to be selected, along with eleven other graduate students and postdocs, to participate in this year’s program. Ashley Brady, PhD, Assistant Dean for Biomedical Career Engagement and Strategic Partnerships, our fearless leader and organizer of the trip, created an itinerary filled with visits to biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the heart of Kendall Square ranging from fewer than one hundred employees, like Ikena Oncology, to some with thousands, such as Novartis.

After arriving in Boston early in the morning, our first visit was a quick ten-minute walk to Alnylam, a mid-sized biotech company focused on RNAi therapeutics. Arun Skaria, MBA, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, organized our visit and welcomed us to the company.

We heard from several of the leaders in the company who shared details of the company’s origins in treating rare diseases stemming from genetic disorders and its future in targeting more complex diseases such as those of the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. Afterwards, we broke out into discussion groups with Alnylam employees including Vanderbilt alumnus Jon Farley, PhD. We concluded our visit with a tour of the lab space and demonstrations of the extensive automated equipment that makes their work possible.
The afternoon included a walking tour of the area with the Kendall Square Association. The association advocates for more community spaces within Kendall Square to make the area more accessible and welcoming to those outside the biotech community. They have encouraged the building of public green spaces and installation of art throughout the neighborhood. We then took the train to an Italian restaurant and ended the day with cannoli. I highly recommend getting two!
For our first full day in Boston, the morning was spent learning about some of the infrastructure that exists to support the biotech and pharma ecosystem in the area. We met with the site director for a tour of the Ipsen Innovation Center Biolabs, which acts as an incubator space for biotech startups. A company will pay rent for bench and office space, which includes other privileges like shared equipment and resources and networking opportunities with investors. It was fascinating to see the logos of all the companies currently housed in the center and the “graduated” companies who have moved on to larger spaces that are all displayed on the walls outside the lab.

After learning about opportunities for new biotech companies to secure lab space and support,
we visited the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council or “Mass Bio”, whose mission is to advocate for and grow the life sciences industry in the state. Mass Bio provides opportunities to become involved in the biotech community no matter your formal training. They host education and outreach programs, plan conferences and networking events, and work with policy makers to ensure the health of the biotech community.

That afternoon, we visited the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) and heard from several alumni about their research, career paths, and life in Boston. Some alumni presented their current research highlighting how different departments collaborate to make large scale projects move forward. As compared to some of the smaller companies we visited, the scientists at Novartis seemed to have a more specialized role within each department. To wrap up our visit, we toured the modern research building, which has an impressive footprint given the scarcity of land and cost of space in Kendall Square. Thursday evening was the Vanderbilt Alumni happy hour at Za Cambridge. Over 60 Vanderbilt alumni attended. I met two alumni who were roommates during grad school and members of the first class of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP).

The graduate students and postdoctoral
fellows stand with Ashley Brady, PhD, as they prepare for a day of adventure in Boston.

I was also able to catch up with many recent graduates just starting their new jobs in Boston. Everyone I met offered to look over my CV or put me in contact with hiring managers at different companies. I am grateful to have such a supportive network as I look forward to graduating and job hunting in the next year. I ended the day exhausted but excited about the expansive number of opportunities available for biotech research.

The next morning, our first visit was with Karuna Therapeutics. We were welcomed by Tim Xu, MD, Senior Director, Business Development, Search & Evaluation, into a modern glass conference room filled with goody bags of Karuna swag including a mug and a baseball cap. While eating breakfast, we heard from Chris Aluise, PhD, Senior Scientist, Discovery Program, on the role of toxicology in the drug development process as they are shepherding several compounds through preclinical and clinical trials for the treatment of psychiatric and neurological conditions.

We then spoke with president and CEO Steve Paul, MD, about the history of Karuna Therapeutics and the many companies he has founded and grown as a serial entrepreneur. To wrap up our time at Karuna, we gleaned insights into interviewing well from HR representatives. They mentioned asking questions about the onboarding process, how disputes are handled, how company values were developed, and opportunities for cross-functional collaboration during the interview process.

We headed on to our last tour of the trip at Ikena Oncology, a small startup company whose strategy to create new cancer therapeutics is to study and target signaling pathways often mis-regulated in cancer, rather than targeting a specific type of cancer. We learned about tools like QSAR and Derek Nexus, which leverage computational predictions to predict biological activity of small molecules and mutagenicity, respectively.

Upon wrapping up the visit, Corey Bown, PhD, a neuroscience graduate student who recently accepted a position as Data Scientist at Abbvie in Chicago, noted that “all of the representatives from the companies we met with were so welcoming and passionate about introducing the next generation of scientists to the biotech industry.”
While traveling to the airport to head back home to Nashville, we discussed our favorite parts of the trip and when we expect to graduate. Kateki Katdare, a current graduate student also in neuroscience, shared “it was great to see old mentors and make new connections all of whom were so kind and willing to share their journey through the biotech world. The many industry visits only highlighted how passionate and involved each team is in tackling their scientific question and making newer therapeutics a reality. This trip has truly reaffirmed my decision to pursue an industry career.” I echo these sentiments. The trip gave me more confidence in my ability to assess workplace culture and identify companies with an environment that best suits my strengths. I also have a greater awareness of the research and scientific advances being discovered in the biotech industry. I look forward to joining our alumni network soon and continuing my scientific growth as a member of the biotech community.