Institutional Innovation: Taking advantage of industry experts to build a workforce-ready generation

Jul 22, 2018 by

Shalina Chatlani –

Small liberal arts college Drew University in Madison, New Jersey is known for being surrounded by an expanse of forestry. But, the institution is also embedded in something else: a fledging biopharmaceutical industry with over a thousand top-name drug-development companies, like Merck, Teva and Allergan.

Tapping into local economic needs and resources

So while students might enjoy the natural surroundings, Drew administrators are taking advantage of the local community’s stock of life science professionals via its RISE (Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti) program. The initiative takes a hands-on approach to the notion of building a workforce-ready student body not just by creating partnerships with companies.

Rather, the institution invites New Jersey’s highly recognized, often Nobel Prize-winning retired industrial scientists to come to campus and teach undergraduate students the skills they need to go onto a Ph.D. and enter a career in drug discovery.

The program is about 37 years old, but the approach of working with retired scientists to build out the biopharmaceutical research pipeline is still fairly unique to the university while also targeted to local economy needs, said Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger in a phone interview with Education Dive.

“There is a direct-applied research component at Drew very much directed toward drug discovery; this has industrial, not to mention scientific, implications,” she said, noting the example of William Campbell, a retired Merck scientist turned RISE professor. While working with students at the institution, he ended up winning the Nobel Prize in 2015 for work on a drug that cured a disease called river blindness.

Offering students expertise, rather than just a degree

Direct contact with an experienced industry professional, said Baenninger, is monumentally beneficial to students’ ability to pursue doctoral studies and enter into the biopharma sector with the skills they need to perform drug discovery.

Vince Gullo, one of the RISE fellows, agreed. Gullo boasts a range of experience, having been the vice president of drug discovery of Cetek Corporation with former work at Schering Plough Research Institute and Merck. He said that when the program started, he thought “it was a great idea” because there are so many “industrial scientists in New Jersey who have retired but don’t really want to.” He’s happy to apply his background toward building the next class of innovators, he said.

“When our students go to a company and talk about what they did as an undergraduate, they can talk about their experience in terms of the specific technology they used, what the goal was of the entire project,” said Gullo. He remembers interviewing job candidates, explaining he and his colleagues were most impressed with the students who could talk about specific work experiences.

And what sets the Drew program a part, Gullo said, is that most academic research groups don’t have equipment — but, students are gaining direct expertise, not just focusing on science but an actual end goal.

“We had a young lady here who wanted to go to medical school. She had good scores, but in her interview, she spent 90% of her time talking about her cancer research project and I believe that’s what helped her get in,” he said. “It’s not common to have the advanced equipment in academics. When she mentioned she used equipment used at Merck, they thought, ‘oh, we need you, that’s equipment they currently have there.”

Scaling the model up

Baenninger said that an added benefit of conducting a program like this is that it allows the institution to test the approach in other disciplines, such as business and theater.

“Ironically, we hadn’t previously expanded this networking model outside the natural sciences. We’re beginning scale this model of bringing the real-industrial world, essentially career exploration of full semester exposure, to school in a more widespread basis,” she said.

When it comes to other types of careers, however, she said that the model works because it provides “that full semester of exposure in an industry [that] is most helpful to students getting jobs and internships.”

“Having students work with retired professionals on real-world programs in areas like social entrepreneurship really helps students understand how to bring their business acumen to causes they believe in,” she said.

Source: Institutional Innovation: Taking advantage of industry experts to build a workforce-ready generation | Education Dive

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