An Investment Opportunity: Training in Biosciences

4/19/11

The burgeoning life sciences/biotech sector here is gratifying and indicates that Seattle isn’t just about airplanes, software and coffee. However, in order for our industry to enjoy the success that others in our region have, it’s crucial that we prioritize training the next generation of scientists.

Last fall, Xconomy hosted an event called “Biotech’s Back,” where leaders from our sector, including Stefan Kappe of Seattle BioMed, shared their views. It is notable that the leaders of both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations were in agreement that the single most important thing we can do is train and mentor young scientists to one day take over our leadership roles. These bright young minds bring innovation, challenging the way we look at existing research problems and pioneering new areas of research.

So what can we do to ensure the next generation is ready to carry forward in the future? We must start early and provide a continuum of training. Today’s headlines shout about the lack of young people interested in scientific careers. Early intervention at the high school level when maturing minds are making educational decisions works. Seattle BioMed’s BioQuest science education program has shown that providing engaging scientific experiences results in students becoming interested in pursuing careers in biomedical research or a related field. In fact, the leaders of this program and its pre-college immersion program, the BioQuest Academy, published a report in PLoS (Public Library of Science) ONE (Nov. 3, 2010) that examined the impact of the Academy during the past five years. This year, for example, 93 percent of the 2005 BioQuest Academy students have completed undergraduate studies with nearly one-quarter explicitly entering fields of study directly related to life sciences careers.

Seattle BioMed is certainly not alone in its work to train the next generation. The Northwest is home to a plethora of opportunities for learning audiences to interact with practicing scientists. Our colleagues include The Center for Inquiry Science program of the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), which advances K-12 education; the Science Education Partnership teacher immersion training program of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; and the ethics-focused outreach program of the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research. All three are award-winning programs that complement the BioQuest program, creating a supportive framework for today’s students and tomorrow’s life sciences leaders.

Partnerships are also fueling further success. When Seattle BioMed built a research-quality lab that was specifically designed for high school students, the for-profit biotech Amgen provided funding at the inception of the program in support of the development of an innovative and exciting curriculum. The Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA), with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, enabled Alliance members to develop the Global Health Ambassadors project and its cross-discipline infectious disease curriculum. This program partnered with the public schools and introduced students at four underserved schools across the state who otherwise not get such an opportunity to the worlds of biotechnology, life science and global health. These examples show how working together can sow seeds that can have the lasting impact.

Still, there must be a continuum of training that builds on and amplifies the earlier educational experiences and illuminates career pathways. Undergraduate research experiences are valuable complements to classroom university education. Partnerships between UW, biomedical research institutes and the biotech companies are valuable in this regard. Support of graduate and postdoctoral education is critical because these are the men and women who have made a career commitment to BioMedicine – it’s from this group that the leaders of tomorrow with emerge. Indeed their training is doubly valuable since it combines learning with the research that is advancing the frontiers of knowledge. Arguably, support of graduate and postdoctoral education and training provides the biggest return on investment.

At last year’s Association of Independent Research Institutes, The Hutch’s Lee Hartwell urged non-profit organizations to find ways to fund junior faculty who have not yet received support for their first research project as an independent scientist, such as an R01 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This venerable NIH grant mechanism has funded the discoveries that are the foundation for the modern medicine from which we all benefit. However, the average age of investigators receiving their first R01 grant has steadily risen and today hovers around 42. Thankfully, NIH is aware that this discourages young and promising scientists who will feel compelled to defect to other endeavors and is working to develop new programs that offer innovative funding to young scientists. However, there are still gaps that must be filled to prevent a drop off of these scientists who have been highly trained at considerable expense – and to avoid ceding Seattle’s, and the United States’, leadership in biomedical research. A combination of public and private partnerships and funding, as well as a sensible strategy, is needed to conserve the past investment and to provide for the continuity of the valuable renewable resource represented by our highly trained skilled biomedical scientists.

Collaboration is a valuable tool to leverage our existing resources. Through collaboration, we can attract more scientists to Seattle as well as retain the ones we have, while offering unique mentorship and training opportunities. Affiliations, especially with the University of Washington, and participation in graduate and postdoctoral training programs are valuable tools to recruit the best scientists to Seattle and to keep them here. Participation in graduate student research committees enhances interactions among scientists, enriches and broadens their research experience and catalyzes the development of novel collaborative research programs.

For example, between 20 and 30 graduate students perform their thesis research at Seattle BioMed. Seattle BioMed scientists provide mentorship for this research and also serve on committees for students doing their research at various departments at the UW, Fred Hutchinson, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Benaroya Research Institute, the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) and ISB. This network of scientific interactions through the educational and training programs is healthy and productive. It leads to collaborative research projects, attracts funding that support those activities and creates jobs that benefits the Seattle economy. These activities bring together the brightest minds from both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations and offer young researchers opportunities to develop their talents. But there is still a need to continue to push the boundaries of scientific collaboration and offer new opportunities for the next generation of researchers.

Aside from airplanes, coffee, software and now a growing biotech/life sciences sector, Seattle is famous for something else: its ability to partner to get things done. By working together – non-profits and for-profits, public and private entities – we can train the next generation of scientists to sustain our industry and to continue the important work that is being done for the world here in our city.

Ken Stuart is the founder of Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. His research is focused on unicellular parasites that are estimated to kill around a million people each year. Follow @

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  • http://www.wghalliance.org Kristen Eddings

    After reading this, all I can say is that I’m really proud to call Seattle home because of people like Ken Stuart and Theresa Britschgi (BioQuest founder) and the team at Seattle BioMed. Congratulations on 35 years of pioneering global health research and discovery.

  • Spectator
  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    Spectator—I certainly do read my own publication. And I can tell you the posts in the Xconomist Forum are like an op-ed page of a newspaper. It’s a forum that reflects individual points of view from members of the community. Those posts don’t necessarily reflect my own view. If you want to see that view, read the BioBeat column.

  • @Luke

    You certainly do read this publication, and thoroughly at that. Kudos. As a comment on this article though, I thought it should be noted that the people in positions of leadership in biotech, ala Ken Stuart, can seem detached from the economic reality of what’s happening on the ground. I have to question the sanity of a pushing an training continuum that currently lasts over 12 years, fails to achieve an average pay above 50k at any point, and whose target field is experiencing large funding cuts. That isn’t even taking into account the trainwreck/vacuum of PhD management. In light of the problems already facing life science, Mr. Stuart’s suggestion of starting even earlier seems ludicrous. #reform

  • Robert Jones

    Perhaps we could start to bridge the gap here by using graduates in the life sciences as human resource professionals. The money HR people make is ridiculous compared to the peanuts they pay scientists. Someone with experience in science is needed when assessing the skills listed on a resume, discussing performance issues and helping management get the most out of the workers. We’ve handed over these six figure jobs to glorified admin assistants.