At the end of the BMES (Stanford Biomedical Engineering Society) Spring Industry Panel, Dr. Eric Schuur told me, “You get a head-start hearing these things when you are young.” Indeed, over the past hour—a discussion panel organized by BMES Industry Vice President Alex Maben and BMES Industry Officer Amelia Traylor—three speakers from biotechnological and biocomputational companies voiced insights on essential undergraduate skills, post-undergrad education, and workplace culture.
Dr. Cameron Sepah, who describes himself as a reluctant techie who saw that computation was becoming essential to healthcare, has just launched his start-up Ketosystem, an interface that helps people comply with low-carb, high-fat diets to reduce blood sugar and lose weight. He draws upon his diverse background as a psychologist, clinical professor, founding member of Omada Health, and venture capital advisor. Dr. Eric Schuur is the president and CEO of Hepatx, a 2016 StartX company which develops efficient hepatocyte production technologies to treat end-stage liver disease; this project integrates Schuur’s 25 years of experience as a scientific researcher (at UCLA, Stanford, and the Scripps Institute), associate director of clinical affairs at Asthmatx, owner of GeneSource, and director of Molecular Biology at Calydon. Finally, Ms. Lisa Herta is a software engineer for Fabric Genomics who builds clinical tools for analyzing wide ranges of datasets including Whole Human, Whole Exome, and RNA Sequencing.
Our first discussion topic focused on the skills, both academic and non-academic, that undergraduates should develop to prepare for a career in biotechnology or biocomputation. Herta emphasized getting comfortable with group-work: Taking advantage of a diverse array of background skills. She also remarked that your studies should be fueled by an inner motivational force—for her, this was improving clinical patient experiences. Schuur concurred, commenting, “If you like what you’re doing, work is never work.” While he acknowledged that sometimes you may not be happy with your position, take advantage of the opportunities outside of the classroom or office. Lab skills can be physically gained or indirectly taught. However, communication skills—a key asset in any company—are best developed through efforts external to the lecture hall: Explore something at Stanford that you wouldn’t otherwise experience. In the same vein, Sepah advised getting outside the “Stanford Bubble” to gain experience in the working world and reaching beyond your major. Most importantly, though, Sepah emphasized the power of networking: Don’t be afraid to cold-call professionals for advice or ask to shadow them for a day.
“...all three shared a common message: “Don’t pursue additional education mindlessly. Only go into it if you know what you are looking for.”
Stemming from their insights on networking and industry, we asked about their opinions on post-undergraduate education. As a bit of background, Sepah and Schuur pursued PhDs, while Herta went straight into industry. Interestingly enough, though, all three shared a common message: “Don’t pursue additional education mindlessly. Only go into it if you know what you are looking for.” Sepah found that unless you want to become a professor or are entering a field where the corporate culture truly expects a PhD, the opportunity and monetary costs associated with a doctoral degree isn’t worth it. He mentioned that the worst mistake is to continue in education because you are good at “being a student,” you believe it’s the “right path,” or you want to delay entering the workforce. Sepah said he would have been fine without his PhD. Herta and Schuur agreed. Herta, in particular, chose to enter industry right after college and has no regrets—she found that the working experience, more than any class lecture or internship stint, allowed her to fluidically redefine what she valued in her career.
Finally, since all three shared an entrepreneurial sprit, we were curious to hear their opinions on the workplace culture of start-up and established companies. Sepah recommended sticking with the two extremes: Start your own company with true entrepreneurial gusto (and develop management skills) or start in a bigger company (with great training programs and technological resources). A good plan, he reflected, would be to start at a large corporation, build a solid network, then found a start-up. Sepah warned that mindlessly becoming an employee at a start-up straight from college is a high-risk, unstable situation, unless you are mainly looking for an internship to learn more about the start-up experience. Schuur agreed that the middle road is a tough one, but believes that if you’re open-minded, anything is possible: While he cautioned that the start-up life is not for the faint-of-heart, he always personally enjoyed the close-knit atmosphere of a small company. Herta had a slightly diverging opinion—the middle road is not always so bad. Having worked at a large corporation with 10,000+ employees and a smaller start-up project, she preferred the latter: At a well-functioning start-up, there is a familial atmosphere, a clear direction for big projects, and a high respect for individual ideas.
With a few minutes left, each speaker gave some closing remarks. Sepah concluded with the adage, “People in our generation will have five careers,” and remarked that he’s only on his second or third. Doing something different can be painful and can feel like you’re letting people down, but if you have a firm vision, pursue your passions. Stanford is wonderful for fostering personal values, principles, and curiosities that guide your future. Find a mentor or friend, listen to your intuition, and lead with a brainy heart. Schuur used a comical cell-phone analogy: People have an entire bucket of cell phones to choose from, and sometimes, they select a cell phone that’s not you. Don’t fret. Another buyer will come. Stretch yourself and don’t be afraid to fail. Facing personal fears, going through the frustration of job-hunts or start-up difficulties, and experiencing disappointments are much more valuable experiences than any financial rewards. Herta reemphasized knowing yourself well and recognizing when you need a big change: If your current career feels stagnated, make a plan for the next step, and make it a reality.
At the BMES Spring Industry Panel—held 5/30/17 in an Old Union meeting room filled with Asian Box tacos, inquisitive students, and insightful company representatives—visions on personal skills, college education, and workplace culture flowed harmoniously. The message was clear: Stanford provides a place to explore. Utilize it. Network. Connect with industries. Build personal relationships. Discover passions. Develop principles and values. Experience failure. Build resilience. Be open-minded about careers. Act purposefully. Act personally. Act authentically.