As a cochair of the 2018 BIO education program planning committee, I twice travelled to Boston to fulfill my responsibilities prior to the BIO International Convention and Conference. The first time was in September of 2017, and as my daughter (Abby) is a student at the Berklee College of Music (also located in Boston), I took the opportunity to visit her while in town. That’s when I first met Miriam Massaad, a friend of my daughter’s. Considering Massaad is a biomedical engineering student at Boston University (BU), I suggested it might be good for her to attend the BIO conference, one of our industry’s biggest annual international gatherings. As BIO was slated for Boston, it was certainly much more affordable for a young college student to attend. And so I began inquiring with the folks at BIO if it would be possible to have Massaad shadow me for a day at this year’s convention.
This seemed like a win-win opportunity on several fronts. First, it was an opportunity to help a student find their career path. For don’t we all know someone working in a field completely different from their undergraduate degree? Perhaps by seeing BIO first hand, Massaad would gain a sense if she was on the right path, and if not, still have time to make a course correction. In addition, we all know gender diversity is an extremely important topic at the executive levels within biopharma. I believe that to achieve this requires starting early, so we can instill the necessary confidence in our next generation of leaders, many of whom will just happen to be women. But there was another win that I didn’t anticipate. Having attended BIO for a number of years, one can take for granted everything such a show has to offer. But Massaad shadowing me for a day provided an extremely unique opportunity — to once again see the annual BIO International Convention through the eyes of a first-time attendee. I hope you enjoy her recap below of her experiences at #BIO2018.
BIO, Butterflies, And A Sense Of Belonging
By Miriam Massaad
It was a rainy Monday morning, and I rode to the Boston Convention Center with a butterfly-filled stomach. I had a nervous sense of excitement that I was doing something big, and it was the type of sensation one might experience on their first day of school, a new job, or some other significant life-changing event. During my transit I decided to tweet about my enthusiasm as a first-time attendee of BIO. But prior to posting, I actually did something I had never done before; I sent my proposed tweet to others seeking their input and suggestions. I don’t consider myself a very media-centered millennial, so watching professionals and others retweet and like my post was truly amazing, and inspiring. Upon my arrival I was like a kid visiting Disney World for the first time. I wanted to go on every ride, see every attraction, as I felt ready for the day.
Waiting to register was an experience all its own. The line extended to two floors of the convention center, and everyone in my vicinity was speaking about bio-engineering, pharmaceuticals, and CRISPR, only not in English. I heard all sorts of languages like German, Chinese, Spanish, and French, and they were all communicating about this common topic. I felt welcomed and honored to just be in the registration line. Though it all seemed very surreal, I had a sense of belonging.
Standing in line I met Bernie Munos, chief apostle at the InnoThink Center for Biomedical Innovation, and a senior fellow at FasterCures, a center of the Milken Institute. I soon learned he is also a frequent contributor to Forbes, Nature, and a member of Life Science Leader magazine’s editorial advisory board. My mind was spinning as he asked what I had been working on at BU. I told him a bit about a recent class project involving the construction of a simple heart monitor and my current work-study in Horacio Frydman’s lab where I’ve been learning about Wolbachia, an intracellular bacteria infecting up to 70 percent of arthropods and filarial nematodes. It seemed a bit surprising that someone of Munos’s stature actually was interested in what I had to say, but at the end of our conversation we actually exchanged business cards — my first networking experience of BIO.
The first session I attended was a fireside chat with James (Jay) Bradner, M.D., president of the Novartis Institute For BioMedical Research (NIBR). I went into the session with a vague understanding of what NIBR does, but felt thrown into another universe when experiencing a real session for the very first time. It wasn’t like a class lecture where the professor brings up what the new science is and how it works, but more of an opinionated view of how the new research and science can change the business and politics of a field. My student perspective is that professors’ advocate for the “textbook” and theoretical approaches behind a science, and the business side of the bioengineering world is something we will learn when we are fresh out of college and enter industry.
Seeing (and hearing) Paul Stoffels, EVP and chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson, was perhaps the most influential and interesting part of my day at BIO. He not only inspired me to continue in my chosen field, but also gave me insight into the workings of a great drug, a first-hand account of the industry’s opinion on things like personalized therapies, machine learning, CRISPR, and the evolution of pharma. He pointed out the importance of competition with drug releases and the forces that drive new drugs. Stoffels also brought up the FDA and its support in helping find solutions. As a young student who felt a little unsure of her future, seeing someone so tenured and successful was reassuring, and his session gave me a different perspective for what the industry is doing, what it is going to do, and how I can be a part of it when the time comes.
The overall BIO experience was filled with this nerdy excitement for the smallest of things. For example, I liked the “punny” way BIO refers to their most important contributors (e.g., Johnson & Johnson) as Double Helix Sponsors. I was at the edge of my seat listening to people who not only utilized specific terminology, but actually seemed to understand the physiology and biology behind what they were saying at a very different level. But it also helped me to understand that I don’t have to be stuck doing just one thing, and my life after graduation didn’t have to reside just in a lab. For many of the leaders I observed and listened to did very different things earlier in their careers. I also saw that there is more to BIO than just work, as I had the opportunity to attend the Tribute To Biotech Welcome Reception at the Seaport World Trade Center. While working in the biopharmaceutical industry can be serious research for those striving to find treatments for some of the world’s worst diseases, it was refreshing to see those who work so hard also seem to enjoy playing hard as well.
I’d like to thank Rob Wright, Life Science Leader, and BIO for providing me the opportunity to attend this year’s convention. The experience has given me a much better understanding of what my future holds and instilled the necessary confidence to turn my goal of becoming a biomedical engineer into reality.