Back to the basics

Back to the basics

Biology students in the MIT Biotechnology Group are applying their skills in basic science to explore careers in industry.

Raleigh McElvery
April 15, 2019

When Rachit Neupane began his PhD at MIT Biology in 2013, the prospect of a career in industry was so mystifying it seemed like a “black box.” He had only a vague idea of what it would take to stray from the well-trodden path to academia and penetrate the biotechnology sphere post-graduation — applying his knowledge of the life sciences to manufacture drugs, develop technologies, and assess business problems.

As a first-year student, Neupane joined Jacqueline Lees’s lab studying the role of epigenetic regulators in lung and colon cancer, while simultaneously enrolling in drug development classes. He hoped to learn more about taking a project all the way from the lab to the clinic, as well as how his basic biology research fit into that scheme. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out,” he recalls.

Two years into his graduate program he received some unexpected guidance in the form of an email, inviting students to join a new group on campus, the MIT Biotechnology Group (MBG). Now nearing its five-year anniversary, MBG was founded by four graduate students from three different departments, and aims to educate MIT undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs who, like Neupane, are curious about the biotech landscape. MBG connects these trainees with one another and with leaders in the greater Boston area.

“We started the MIT Biotech Group as a conduit through which students, postdocs, and even young professors could access the rich biotechnology community surrounding MIT,” says founding co-president James Weis SM ’17. “The breadth and scale of MBG’s influence, and especially the career decisions it has enabled, has surpassed my most optimistic projections — largely due to incredible efforts of several generations of leaders, who have grown the group into MIT’s primary point-of-contact with the biotechnology community.”

Today, MBG is still entirely student-run. Although the leadership roles are currently primarily held by students from the Departments of Biology and Biological Engineering, MBG brings together trainees from across campus, including Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Health Sciences and Technology, Chemical Engineering, and Computational Systems Biology.

Neupane now serves as co-president alongside Catie Matthews of Chemical Engineering and the Sloan School of Management. Together, they oversee a core team of nearly 30 graduate and undergraduate students, who collaborate to host a slew of events related to life sciences entrepreneurship, industry R&D, and business.

Once Neupane graduates, second-year Biology graduate student Lena Afeyan will take his place. She has served as director of the entrepreneurship branch, and, most recently, on the executive board as the director of finance. As such, she manages the group’s budget — which covers staple events like the semester-long Industry Seminar Series and the annual Ideation pitching and networking symposium, as well as career networking nights, special lectures, and the group’s due diligence projects.

These programs complement ones hosted by individual departments. “MBG is the central place where students from all these different departments can come together to think about biotech,” Afeyan says.

She knew before she began her PhD that she wanted to go into biotech, and chose MIT Biology specifically because “it offered a rigorous program to learn basic science while being so close to a biotech hub and surrounded by engineering minds.” This basic science knowledge, she explained, would allow her to ask the right questions later in her career, in order to identify high-impact scientific advances.

According to Afeyan, her principal investigator, Richard Young, runs his lab like a mini company. Young investigates the molecular mechanisms behind gene control, and has founded four different companies in less than a decade.

“He’s built a very strong reputation in his field because he’s attacked fundamental biological questions with a lot of scientific rigor, while understanding that those same questions can have a high impact on patients with diseases like cancer,” she says.

Afeyan’s labmate, fourth-year graduate student Alicia Zamudio, joined the lab because she was interested in the research questions, irrespective of their biotech applications. Unlike Afeyan, she’d had very little exposure to industry prior to MIT, until she took a drug development class and began meeting professionals in industry. Although she found MBG less than a year ago, she’s now an officer in the branch of the group focused on industry.

“I wanted to learn more about the biotech sector and build connections with professionals in the space,” she says. As a member of MBG, she’s not just one individual reaching out to an organization; she is backed by hundreds of curious students on campus hoping to learn more.

In her role as officer, Zamudio helps MBG organize events open to the entire MIT community, including site visits to various biotech companies in the area. “Dozens of these companies are walking-distance,” she says. “No other place has the density of biotech companies that exists here in Kendall Square.”

As Zamudio prepares to graduate, she hasn’t completely discarded the possibility of pursuing an academic postdoc, but she’s leaning heavily towards a career in industry.

“Industry seems like an extremely dynamic place where you get to think about scientific problems that help people,” she says, “while making practical use of a background in basic science.”