According to BIO (Biotechnology Innovation Organization), a leading trade organization, wage and job growth in biotechnology consistently outpace the national average. Biotechnology is a dynamic field, founded on human curiosity and ingenuity, that offers a broad range of career choices across medical, environmental, and industrial science occupations.
In the Conversations in Biotech: Careers webinar that took place on October 15, 2020, the University of Wisconsin Applied Biotechnology program manager, Dr. Melinda Verdone, and a panel of experts discussed careers in biotechnology.
Didn’t have a chance to watch the webinar live? You can access the full recording on Youtube and read a shortened Q&A below.
Steve Caldwell has spent the last 25 years working in a variety of biotech, pharma, and medical device companies. For the last four years, he has worked as a Senior QA Manager, Validation and ECM with Illumina in Madison, WI. Outside of work, he teaches courses at two different academic institutions: an undergrad science career development class for the University of Illinois and ABT 735: Quality Control and Validation for the University of Wisconsin online Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology.
Phil Hemken, Ph.D. has worked at Abbott in the Diagnostics Division for 24 years. In the last 18 years, he’s been involved in numerous assay development projects for the automated immunoassay instruments, ARCHITECT and Alinity. Phil received his B.S. in Microbiology from Iowa State University, his M.A. in Biotechnology from Washington University in St. Louis, and his Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from Iowa State University.
Amy Hendricksen is the Director of Global Marketing, Proteomics, Life Sciences at Bio-Rad Laboratories. Her educational background is in microbiology and infectious disease ecology, and she earned her Master of Science in Biotechnology from UW-Madison. She has enjoyed working in many different fields within biotechnology, life sciences, and diagnostics. Translating customer needs and pain points into successful solutions is her passion.
Richard Schifreen, Ph.D. is a retired executive with a focus on the life sciences and clinical diagnostics industries. Richard was a founding faculty member in the Master of Science in Biotechnology Program at UW-Madison, and is an advisory board member for the online Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology offered through UW Extended Campus. He earned his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Georgia and is a diplomate emeritus of the American Board of Clinical Chemistry.
Moderated by: Dr. Melinda Verdone, program manager of the online University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology program. She earned her M.S. in Microbiology and her Ed.D. in Higher Education and has more than 20 years of biotechnology experience working in research and development and higher education.
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Here’s a recap of the panelists’ answers to the pre-prepared questions from Dr. Melinda Verdone, along with those asked by audience members during the live webinar.
Q: Can you share your personal journey of how you arrived at your current position, including what education helped you to get there?
Steve: “Out of college, I was your typical student. Get your degree, don’t know what you’re going to do with it. So I took a chance on a company. And the first job I had out of college was working with chickens. From that, there were things I liked to do and things that I didn’t like to do. So I kind of took that idea and then ran with it over the years.”
Amy: “While I was at NimbleGen Systems, which then became Roche NimbleGen, my boss was incredibly supportive, and he really highly encouraged me to do the master’s in biotechnology program, which happened to be right across the street from NimbleGen, so I could just trot across the parking lot and take these courses with great guys like fellow panelist Rich Schifreen. And it was a great experience. And in that program, I really found my passion was not so much on the absolute technical side, but– kind of like you guys just heard, dealing with customers to figure out, what is their pain point? And how can we translate those pain points into solutions that will enable them to accelerate their research? And so that’s when I got into marketing.”
Richard: “What did I learn? One is it’s so much about people. It’s about teams. It’s about working with others and establishing their trust and trusting them as well. I think that that’s an ongoing lesson. And the other is if you think you want to make a transition, make sure to get the skills that you need to do that. You may start out your career with some very general education. I started out with a Ph.D. and my clinical chemistry diplomate certification. But then as I progressed in my career, my education was a lot more targeted to very specific, one- and two-week type programs to develop a particular knowledge base or skill.”
Phil: “A combination of the technology, knowing how to make monoclonal antibodies, and then the courses taken during graduate school, allowed me to come here to Abbott. Learning molecular diagnostics and assay diagnostics for our automated platforms has been a learning process on the job, learning those different technologies.”
Q: From your experience, what skills are the most important in your role and in the biotechnology field?
Steve: “I think a lot of it really depends on what you’re specifically doing. It’s kind of like ecosystems and organisms. Certain things thrive in certain environments and certain things don’t thrive in certain environments. The way I look at it in that regard– maybe it’s just because of the biology background– but are you selecting for the right environment to work in?”
Phil: “Yeah, for me, the most important skills at my current job are, obviously, immunoassay development. Working with antibodies, being able to know how to make recombinant proteins, recombinant antibodies, being able to know how to purify them, and traditional hybridoma technology are really useful. But then also, on the project management side, is very important in how you communicate with other people, having a positive attitude.”
Richard: “Early on, I really had a hard time dealing with the fact that things failed and things failed as often as they succeeded. And I had to get beyond that, learn not to blame myself, learn to accept it, and really learn to embrace the risk. I also learned to follow my curiosity, follow my passion, and have the confidence that if things didn’t work out, another opportunity was going to come along.”
Amy: “I think the biggest thing that I’ve come away with, moving from a very analytical, technical science background, moving into this marketing and product development role, is being able to quietly and actively listen, to not come into a situation always with a solution. You can walk into somebody’s lab and think you understand their problem. Sometimes watching somebody struggle, watching somebody go through something that is difficult, and listening, and talking with them, and trying to uncover a solution together is really, really gratifying.”
Q: What advice do you have for those entering or advancing in the biotechnology field?
Steve: “I think that taking courses is a wonderful way to be able to learn about stuff and to fail without consequence. And by “fail,” I don’t mean fail your course. I mean, take an idea, try it out. If you don’t get it right, you’ll learn from it. And then when you go to the second or third time in real life, you’re, like, oh, yeah. This is what’s happening to me. Also find ways of getting different experiences and don’t focus on one little thing. Dabble in a couple other little areas so that you least get a broader perspective. And you can always focus-in.”
Phil: “I would also add that whatever you’re interested in, find the cutting-edge technologies and learn them really well. I learned how to make monoclonal antibodies and that helped me in my career path with multiple—almost all— the jobs that I’ve gotten. So whether it’s next-gen sequencing or another technology, learn it very well, and that will really help you.”
Richard: “I’d suggest trying to look outward. We all have families. We work at companies. Most of us can put in a 60-hour week very easily between our families and our primary company. But what I’m suggesting is to find outside interests that are related to your field and things that you might want to do. Some of those activities turned into my next job, because they did become important.”
Amy: “Learn how to read financial statements, profit-loss statements, cash flow. Even if you are not directly involved, at some point, you’ll want to have a critical eye on, yeah, this is a great scientific idea or this is a great project to be involved in, but what does it actually mean to be successful to the scientific community, right, but what does it mean to be successful for your company?”
Q: With COVID-19, many biotech companies are rapidly growing and hiring lots of people. Do you think this trend will continue? What happens to the job market in a few years from now once COVID-19 has passed?
Amy: “We’re also scaling-up manufacturing capabilities, and those are long-term investments. So I think that once you have some of that hard capital spent on equipment and line and everything that we’re doing to try to enable COVID tests and serological assays and all these types of things, I think that we’re really looking for additional opportunities. Take advantage of some of these hiring rushes, but make yourself invaluable to the company that you’re working for, and there will probably be places where people can fit.”
Steve: “Yeah, there’s always a need for product and services. If you make something that people want or need and are willing to pay for it, then you’re in business.”
Phil: “Yeah, here at Abbott, we hire a lot of folks, even all the way up to the Ph.D. level, in contract positions. So that– actually, it’s a good way for people to know if they want to work at that company. But also, it’s a way for Abbott to know that person is a good fit. We typically hire full-time people that do really well in their contract position.”
Richard: “I think it’s fair to say that given all the challenges that biotechnology addresses, the industry is healthy and is going to continue to grow. Where it gets interesting is trying to predict what’s going to happen in a particular product area or with a particular company.”
Q: Does medical technology create a strong foundation for biotechnology careers? How important is clinical technology?
Richard: “If you’re in an area of biotechnology that involves human health, one of the things you really have to be close to and understand is, how does what I do impact on the patient, who is ultimately the final customer down the chain? Having a background in something like medical technology or clinical chemistry or clinical micro or molecular pathology, whatever, it provides an insight into how what you’re doing impacts the patient. And I think that’s a huge value. It’s a great way to get started in the industry. But it’s far from the only way to develop that sensitivity and empathy for how what you do impacts the patient.”
Phil: “To understand what the customer needs is really important.”
Q: What other pathways are good entry points into biotechnology?
Steve: “Any application that really gets you critically thinking, gets you matricing out, this is how this works. This is how you trace it. This is my objective evidence. This is how I prove something works or doesn’t work. So it could be clinical chemistry. It could be bio. It could be engineering. Could even be mathematics. I think any of those bases– it really depends on how you use it.”
Amy: “I think another area that I’ve seen folks—and particularly at Bio-Rad— have come in and they maybe haven’t been the most scientifically technical, but they came in as really, really, really strong project managers. A lot of those folks, after being in project management for a while, have gone back and done associate biotech type of degrees to get a little bit more of the science background. Or Bio-Rad actually has an internal, bio basics course bootcamp that we offer to employees who don’t have a technical background.”
Phil: “One thing that helped me was seeking out mentors as well, having good relationships with professors or principal investigators where I worked.”
Richard: “Biotech companies are companies. They need accountants. They need HR people. They need janitors. They need facility managers. All the different kinds of jobs that every other company needs, and not all of them require a scientific or technical background. If they’re excited about it, they can learn and they can branch out and really take on leadership roles in the biotech industry without starting from the technical background.”
Q: What is the career outlook for biotechnology?
Amy: “We haven’t solved all the world’s problems yet, so I think it looks great.”
Phil: “I agree. I think it looks really strong.”
Richard: “Pick your problem area. Is it human health? Is it agriculture? Is it clean technology? Is it sustainability? Every one of these areas require what biotechnology has to offer. I was at this for 40 years, and there have been blips, but overall, the industry has grown. And I think it will continue to.”
More about UW Applied Biotechnology
The University of Wisconsin offers a 100% online, 31-credit Master of Science in Biotechnology degree. The program was developed in collaboration with biotechnology industry leaders and academics in the field, giving students the skills and knowledge prospective employers desire.
If you’re interested in learning more, you can go to appliedbiotechnology.wisconsin.edu, or contact an enrollment adviser at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-895-3276.