Becoming a biotech explorer

Three years after launching the Biotech Explorers Pathway, a unique opportunity for first-year and sophomore students, biology professor Joe Jez shares how the program started and some of what its students have accomplished so far.




Biology professor Joe Jez launched the Biotech Explorers Pathway in 2016.
Biology professor Joe Jez launched the Biotech Explorers Pathway in 2016. 

Claire Gauen (host): Thanks for listening to Hold That Thought. I’m Claire Gauen. Usually on Hold That Thought we feature Washington University professors talking about their research. But it’s important to remember that our professors are more than researchers – they’re also teachers. And often, the ways they teach are just as innovative and interesting as the ways they do scholarship. For an example, today we bring you Joe Jez.

Jo Jez (guest): I'm Joe, Joe Jez, professor of biology here at Washington University.

CG: A few years ago, in the middle of his busy schedule, Jez happened to see an ad for a competition. The contest was being put on by the Howard Hughes Science Education Program, and it was aimed at science professors, like him.

JJ: It's essentially to get a grant for a million dollars that you can then use to craft your dream course, curriculum – different people do it in different ways.

CG: Jez had always enjoyed teaching and mentoring students, but he thinks of himself first and foremost as a scientist. He’s never really thought of himself as being on the cutting edge as an educator. Still, the Howard Hughes announcement caught his attention. He saw an opportunity to correct something that he sees as a common problem with STEM education, that’s science, technology, engineering, and math.

JJ: We tend to teach our STEM majors that everything is compartmentalized, and you'll see how it fits together when you're a junior or a senior.

CG: In real-world science, Jez says, fields like biology and chemistry are very much connected. But in the years when college students are choosing their majors, they don’t get to see that. He wondered if a different approach might change the way students think about science itself, and also about science careers.

JJ: If you could give people a story up front about how all these things that seemed to be completely unconnected really are connected, starting freshman year, would that help keep students in the sciences? Would it also influence a little bit of their future direction?

"If you could give people a story up front about how all these things that seemed to be completely unconnected really are connected, starting freshman year, would that help keep students in the sciences?"

CG: So, starting with this desire to show how the sciences are interconnected, Jez then had to figure out how to make it happen in the classroom. The course would have to be interesting enough to catch the attention of first-year students, and also to impress the Howard Hughes judges – remember this was a competition for a million dollars. After sitting on it for a while, he had an idea.

JJ: When I was having all this stuff whirl around the brain about, well, what would I want to teach if I could teach anything I wanted – biotech was what hit me because it's something that combines science, engineering, law, business, a little bit of salesmanship. You know, all these different facets that are useful skills no matter what you do.

CG: Useful no matter what major you end up picking, and more importantly, useful for a huge range of careers. Jez’s focus on biotech actually came from his own career experience.

JJ: I have a background in biotech. When I was an undergrad I started in a professor's company that was literally a garage. And then before starting my own lab after finishing my postdoc, I actually spent time in industry.

CG: So, with this background in biotech and his million-dollar idea in hand, Jez went for it. Even after many years of experience applying for grants, he said the competition format made the whole thing a pretty intense experience. Think about the TV show Shark Tank, but with professors.

JJ: We put something together, went for a competition. They brought 30 people in. They gave each of us 12 minutes, and they said, 'Okay, half of you we'll contact after we're done. The other half we'll say thank you, but no.' And then two weeks later, you get this email: 'Hi! You're getting one of these grants!' And off it goes!

CG: Off it goes. Jez and 14 other research scientists from around the country suddenly had the funds to create a dream educational experience for their students. At WashU, with Jez at the lead, this became the Biotech Explorers Pathway – a totally unique opportunity for first-year students. Part of what makes Jez’s idea so attractive is the city of St. Louis itself. As you may or may not know, there’s a lot of science innovation happening around town, especially in biotech.

JJ: It's actually the number one start-up city in the United States. At least over the last few years it's had a great record, and there's all this activity going on. So when the students are actually learning about the science, most of it is through case studies of companies that are in the area.

"When the students are actually learning about the science, most of it is through case studies of companies that are in the area."

CG: These case studies happen through readings and interviews, and also through in-person experiences. Students in Biotech Explorers actually go check out these businesses for themselves.

JJ: The first time we did it we went out to a bio fuel processing factory out in Illinois outside of Edwardsville. It's essentially the pilot plant for doing corn to ethanol. And you know, they're bringing in loads of corn and doing these massive fermentations. So we had a walk-through of the plant where there's thousand-liter fermenters, and saw how this all connects.

CG: This experience is one of several off-campus visits throughout the year. So one week you see this large-scale agricultural facility, and a couple weeks later, you might be in a small office.

JJ: We used to go to Sequoia sciences, which is a small biotech north of here. They're focused on plant natural products as different pharmaceuticals, and discovering them and trying to move them through. So they're a 12 to 15 person company, so small. They kind of have their little space.

CG: From there, the scale, and the type of business, shifts yet again.

JJ: We then head to the genome center down at the Medical School and show, 'Here's a room of 40 million dollars worth of sequencing instruments, and we can do genomes this fast and get this information.' And across the street is the server building, you know, in terms of big data scale. And then we head out to Monsanto – here's a company of 10,000 people – and what they have in their site out in Chesterfield versus other places. So it sort of gives them a sense of the scope of what different size companies can do, but also what the different types of science are and different types of questions people are asking.

CG: In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a wide variety of work done within biotech, and a wide variety of organizations doing the work – even in St. Louis alone. Once first-year students learn about these kinds of options and see some of the places first-hand, they then have the opportunity to learn more about one business that interests them.

JJ: So we break it down into pharmaceuticals, proteins, personalized medicine, genomes, and then agriculture and systems biology. There's all these different companies in each of those topics. And so I give a little intro about, 'Here's some big picture science. Here are some of the problems.' Now you guys have to go out and look at the companies in the St. Louis life sciences sphere, and basically come up with case studies – short, five-page write-ups and some presentations on the science, the problem, the product, and the potential of the companies.

CG: All this leads up to the second year of Biotech Explorers. After spending a year learning all about the science and the business of biotech, the students take the reins. They’re basically asked, what challenge would your company take on? What problem do you want to solve? So far in the program, the answers that sophomores come up with are pretty remarkable.

JJ: The last course we call 'Biotech Project,' and what the students have to do is they all have to come up with their own idea. And so the four groups that did the first time through, one group wanted to do engineering of microbes to improve soil salinity, right? Basically to counteract bad soil areas – the idea being, could you get a microbe that could take the salt out of soil and make it more useful? Another group wanted to come up with a better way for data mining the medical data that's on your iPhone. You know, what you can input in from that, and using neural networks to figure out how to mine it better and utilize it. Another group wanted to come up with this microfluidics device for doing alcohol testing. The idea being that if you were going out somewhere and you were getting served something, you could check it to make sure it was right. And then another group came up with this whole other idea for how to do drug delivery inside cells, through a specialized system. And these were sophomores! So these are second-year students. This is four examples of people who had ideas that might be able to change something.

CG: Even after coming up with these kinds of innovative, technically detailed proposals, the work’s not done. Part of the point of Biotech Explorers is to help students see what it takes to move discoveries from the laboratory into the real world. So in some ways, the idea is just the beginning.

JJ: I treated it as, 'Here's something where you could have your first generator. Come up with an idea, walk through it, work to see if it really is feasible.' And in fact we have them recruit a scientific advisory board. They have to go out and find two professors who are willing to give them feedback on their project ideas. The ones that were doing the microfluidics for the alcohol testing, they went over to talk to somebody in Engineering, and they're like, 'Oh are you guys building this? This is totally doable.' When they started hearing that from other faculty, they actually got even more excited. So it was really interesting to watch them take their first creative swings.

"I treated it as, 'Here's something where you could have your first generator. Come up with an idea, walk through it, work to see if it really is feasible.'"

CG: Once these creative swings are shown to be both feasible and scientifically sound – then comes the real test. Just like Jez had to sell the idea of Biotech Explorers to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, his students have to sell their ideas to a roomful of skeptics.

JJ: The end of the class they had to pitch to a panel of experts. We had the dean of engineering; we had somebody from our tech transfer office; we had somebody who does business development for Skandalaris; and an outside patent person. And so they were grilled on each of the projects. They were basically hit with every possible angle – the business side, the technical stuff – and they all really defended what they had done. They had done their homework really well. I loved it, watching it, because it was like, 'Oh, this is what I thought it should be.' And you know, seeing sophomores in the first half of sophomore year go toe-to-toe with Ralph Quatrano from engineering when he's hitting them about these mechanistic details about what's going on in the cell, or having somebody from our OTM or the business school hit them with, 'well what about the competition,' and they're able to answer some of these things – they really did what they were supposed to do.

CG: The first group of Biotech Explorers started their journey in 2016. Looking back at the first few semesters of the program, I asked Jez what he thought has been most valuable. Has it been the field trips? The glimpses into real-life entrepreneurship? The ability to approach difficult science in an integrated way? All those things are valuable, he says, but the most important thing in his mind is something much more personal.

JJ: It makes them feel at home. When you're going through – especially for the science and engineering and the STEM-type classes – you know, the intro courses are huge. It's usually a few hundred people. The professor this distant creature off at the podium, right? And here's something where I have a class of ranges from 12 to 20 students. I get to know them all pretty well by the end of the first semester.

CG: He gets to know them, they get to know him, and they get to know each other – it makes for a tight-knit and fun experience, even with the amount of work involved. And it isn’t just students having all the fun.

JJ: I liked teaching biochemistry for the juniors and seniors, but this has been a heck of a lot more fun. Because it's something where – how do I put it. I'm only really doing maybe less than half of the teaching. It's really the students that are driving the projects. And then depending on the companies – you know like the guys that get Pfizer. Okay, Pfizer does 50,000 different things. They can kind of pick what they're interested in. So it's a lot more of this experiential learning and active learning. It's been fun because they sort of are coming in with a little bit of science knowledge, a little bit of real-world knowledge, and digging in to what they see in the companies. Then it's them as a group that kind of figure out what they want to talk about and how they want to present it. And I've always learned something new, every single time we've done it. I think they also get a sense of what's beyond the textbook, right? All the stuff that they are learning, which is, you know – it can be interesting, but it's also in the textbook. But then they realize, 'Oh, there's so much more you can do with it.' And that's always been a great thing to see every single time we finish with the series.

"I'm only really doing maybe less than half of the teaching. It's really the students that are driving the projects."

CG: Many thanks to Joe Jez for joining Hold That Thought. When he isn’t teaching Biotech Explorers, he’s attempting to understand how organisms respond to environmental changes. You can find a link to his lab on the Hold That Thought website. There you can also find our full archive of episodes and many more ideas to explore. Thanks for listening.

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