April 7, 2017 - One of the most important measures of the success of the master's in biotechnology program at Georgetown University Medical Center is the success of its graduates. That was on display April 1, when the program celebrated its 20th anniversary with more than 200 alumni in attendance.
Former students traveled from as far as China and California to attend the event, which created a series of class reunions as the students were reunited in the Pre-Clinical Science Building. Some alumni spoke about their current work in different areas of biotechnology, including Matt Arnold, a vice president at AstraZeneca’s IMED Biotech Unit; You-shin Chen, now a GUMC biotechnology faculty member; Ann Ostrovsky, an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at New York University School of Medicine; and Kanishka Pothula, a senior investment analyst at BVF Partners, a biotechnology hedge fund.
The largest group of alumni, almost forty percent, work in biotechnology or the biopharmaceutical industry. Others work in health care, regulatory agencies or government, law, finance, consulting, research, or are continuing their education.
Yilan Shi (BGE’14) said that after she was hired by Bio-Rad Laboratories as a cell biology application scientist, the hiring manager said that her unique mix of academic skills and industry acumen was one of the key reasons she was chosen. “Because GU's biotechnology program trained me so well, there was no ‘learning curve’ of how to behave in industry,” Shi said.
Ostrovsky (BGE’02) said the biotechnology program is unique in that it exposes its students to a range of applications of biotechnology and science, which helped make her a strong candidate for medical school. Pothula (BGE’08) said the students’ diversity, as well as the opportunity to find his own internship and follow his interest in finance, were important components of the program.
Sharing the Credit and Secrets of Success
The alumni also credited the mentorship and guidance of the program’s founder and director, Jack G. Chirikjian, PhD.
“Dr. Chirikjian was unbelievably helpful to me while I was clarifying my goals,” Ostrovsky said. “He was really a tremendous mentor for me, and I’ve been in touch with him all these years.”
However, Chirikjian, who is also a professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology, gave credit to others, including Vasna Nontanovan (BGE’04), the program’s associate director and Karen Brotherton (BGE’09), the program manager. Both Nontanovan and Brotherton are program alumni. The staff and a committee of alumni and students coordinated the event, which included an after-party off-campus that went well into the night.
“I’m often asked, ‘how can I start a program like this?’” Chirikjian said at the event. There are three secrets, he said: the product has to fit a need; the faculty, including the adjunct faculty, must be practitioners; and most important is the quality of the students you can recruit.
"More Than An Education"
During her welcoming remarks, Barbara Bayer, PhD, professor and chair in the department of neuroscience and senior associate dean of Biomedical Graduate Education, told attendees that Chirikjian was “way ahead of us 20 years ago” when he initiated the biotechnology program as part of the master of science in biochemistry and molecular biology. With the exception of the Special Master's Program in Physiology, most of the master's programs at the time were terminal master’s degrees as part of a PhD program. Today, there are more than 25 master’s degree programs and the steady growth of the biotechnology program has made it the second largest master's program on the GUMC campus.
The biotechnology master’s program now offers five tracks, plus the option to create an individualized program, and the use of tracks to customize the learning experience of master's students is a concept that many programs at GUMC have started to adopt. This fall, the biotechnology program will add a new track – a focus on entrepreneurship, Chirikjian said. An entrepreneur himself, Chirikjian has started four companies and holds a patent for detecting nucleic acid repair enzymes.
“This program offers more than an education,” said Robert Clarke, PhD, DSc, dean of research and professor of oncology at GUMC. “It helps set you up in life.”