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Emory Biotech Consulting Club highlights alternative career paths for life science PhDs
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Tony Van Witsen
Science writer
Science students in a biomedical lab

Sarah Blumenthal, Dominika Swieboda and Todd Sherer all began graduate school wanting to do scientific research.

“33 years ago, I was finishing up my PhD, studying the developing brain,” Sherer says. “The 90s was supposed to be the decade of the brain. I wasn’t expecting that I was going to spend the rest of my life not actually doing science.”

For Blumenthal, that realization came earlier, during her second or third year of grad school. “I realized around that time that I love science,” she says. “I'm interested in it, but I don't know if being a professor is really what I want for my career.”

Swieboda got lucky early. “I did my PhD in immunology,” she says. “But my first or second year, I attended a program called Pathways Beyond the Professoriate. and what was featured was consulting. And I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool.’”

A few decades ago, there were scant career options for people who loved science more than they loved life in the lab. But four years ago, Emory professor of chemistry Bill Wuest, determined to find another path for people like that, started the Emory Biotech Consulting Club (EBCC). Through it, science students with a taste for life outside the lab could get hands-on experience with the business side of science by working with biotech startups to help develop business plans and strategies.

“The experiences that the students have gone through have been really transformational,” Wuest says. “They’ve started independent ventures in consulting. They’ve started different types of biotech companies.”

Those achievements were on display on a recent evening when EBCC members came together to eat, drink, network and listen to each others’ business achievements.

Keynote speaker Sherer has been a natural ally in his role as director of Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer, where he builds bridges between Emory’s scientific talent and the biotech industry. “We have students that go to companies like McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting Group,” he points out. “They also go to smaller biotech firms. This is the proof of the pudding.”

“It’s really cool to work with startup companies,” says Blumenthal, EBCC’s current president. “I had just been thinking about research. The business side of science was somebody else’s problem. Being a part of this group has allowed me to see the kinds of questions the business side of science tackles. You're getting to see what it takes to take an idea to a consumer, how complicated that process is and all that goes into it.”

During the event, multiple student teams presented the results of their business analyses, explaining how they analyzed potential markets for their particular product as well as finances and possible pitfalls, such as getting approval from government regulators.

One team of seven students and biotech entrepreneur Kiran Pandey, analyzed the market for a new and more reliable blood test for detecting Alzheimer’s disease, which totaled $321 billion for health care costs in the United States alone in 2022. They did a competitive analysis, then looked at product placement and pathways through the regulatory process. Their analysis estimated a $550 million market for tools that can detect the existence of Alzheimer’s.

Another team of six students and faculty adviser Adam Ericsen evaluated a robotic program that can act as a single control for all the automated devices laboratories currently use to perform routine scientific tasks such as pipetting, record keeping and immune assays. They concluded the market for lab automation is increasing but expensive and limited to users who can afford it like big pharma companies. Surveying labs at Emory and Georgia Tech, they concluded laboratory robotics has what they called “a great pathway into the market” because it’s more customizable and flexible than its competitors.

Through EBCC, students can also practice together for job interviews — excellent preparation, Swieboda says, for the demanding interview at McKinsey, the management consulting firm where she now works.

“Instead of talking about yourself,” she says, “they’re almost a test where you go through a case that you would have on the job, and they see how you react, how you work with them, what kind of ideas you have, how you think through things. I put a lot of time into preparing for those. And the only reason I had anybody to work with was because of this club.”

While Wuest is proud of his members’ record outside the lab, he’s not surprised at their ability to hack it.

“An underrated aspect of graduate studies is learning independence, learning problem solving,” he says. “Thinking on your feet. You think about the science you’re doing and you don't realize the other skills you pick up, of being independent, being a leader, a problem solver, and there's very few avenues in graduate school that show you those attributes can be applied elsewhere.”

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