By Gwendolyn Schanker, Journalism and Biology, 2018
Boston is the apex of today’s biotechnology world. With over 250 companies in Boston, Cambridge, and surrounding suburbs, nearly every pharmaceutical company has a stake in Boston’s biotech network.
The expanding biotech job market, described in detail in the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation’s recently released Digest of Biotech Job Trends, means that aspiring scientists and engineers need to be able to “hit the ground running,” as Marcus Fiadeiro, senior scientist at Pfizer, puts it.
“Previously in the industry, processes took longer to develop and we had more time to learn,” Fiadeiro said. “Nowadays it’s more streamlined and fast-paced. It definitely helps to have a strong background.”
That’s not a problem for Jeff Horne, a graduate of Northeastern University’s Professional Science Master’s Program in Biotechnology and a senior associate scientist in process development at Pfizer.
Now in its thirteenth year, Northeastern’s biotechnology program incorporates key concepts in business with a solid science curriculum. Students in the Master’s Program choose a concentration they’re interested in and then take courses that combine the curriculum with their interests. The coursework is juxtaposed with a six-month co-op, which students do in their last semester of school.
After completing his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at Stonybrook University, Horne sought out Northeastern to develop his burgeoning interest in biotech.
“I was interested in a mix of chemical biologics and biology, but I had no idea biotechnology existed,” he said. “I knew Northeastern had a really robust co-op and employment program. That’s what drew me in.”
Horne graduated from Northeastern in 2014 and spent a year working at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, where he had previously completed his co-op, before continuing his career at one of Pfizer’s local facilities in Andover, Mass. His team is the median between the research and commercial sides of the company. They prepare molecules for clinical trials, from where they move on to become new medicines.
“I can say with confidence that it would have been very difficult to get my first job without that co-op experience,” Horne said.
Horne’s supervisor, Dan LaCasse, has enjoyed collaborating with Northeastern students.
“A bright person is a bright person and will be able to adapt, but we’ve seen very promising candidates come out of Northeastern,” he said. “They come in very confident with a desire to work hard and learn.”
The combination of science background, business courses, and co-op helps students gain a more comprehensive view of working in industries like biotechnology.
“We’re empowering the students to take ownership of their work and participate in not just our group, but in our development across the whole R&D organization,” LaCasse said. “You get to see this whole life cycle of what we do and how it fits into the big picture of developing future biotherapeutic treatments.”
Steve Cohen, the program’s academic director, says that perspective is key to making it in today’s biotech world.
“You’re not hunkered down in your own area – you’re part of a complex machine that makes the company work,” he said. “That recognition is something that’s really changed in the industry.”
More than 90% of the program’s 330 graduates have found employment within nine months of graduation, but the students aren’t the only ones who benefit from co-op.
“It’s definitely a two-way street,” Fiadeiro said. “There’s a very strong ecosystem developing between Northeastern and Pfizer.”
Cohen says that one of the most important parts of his job is fortifying his relationship with both the students and their collaborators in the biotech industry.
“I get to strengthen the program by hiring industry experts,” he said. “It all holds together in this triangle of what I try to do, what the students try to do, and what the industry is trying to do.”
When it comes to the value of experiential learning, it’s hard to over-emphasize it.
“It was an opportunity to interact with a diverse group of industry leaders that have a lot of valuable insights,” Horne said. “If you want to get your foot in the biotech industry, even if you know nothing about it, then definitely go to Northeastern.”