The Biotech Explorers Pathway (BEP), an Ampersand first-year program, engages students with the science of biotechnology and the process of moving discoveries from the lab into the real world. Senior biochemistry major Gaby Smith describes how BEP’s hands-on, multidisciplinary approach shaped her time as an undergraduate and her career aspirations.
Gaby Smith always knew she was interested in medicine. Four years ago, while still in high school, she spied an opportunity at Washington University that not only dovetailed nicely with her existing interest in health sciences but also offered interesting field trips and options for independent work: the Biotech Explorers Pathway (BEP). She accepted a spot in the Class of 2022 and signed up for the two-year program, not yet knowing the extent to which BEP would shape her WashU experience.
“Before Biotech Explorers, I didn’t understand how a drug gets FDA approval, or the role of academia in collaborating with industry, financial partners, and legal counsel,” said Smith, now a senior majoring in biochemistry with a minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies. “BEP helped me understand the big picture, key stakeholders, and what role I wanted to play as an aspiring physician-scientist in this process.”
The Biotech Explorers Pathway was developed and launched in 2015 by Joe Jez, the Spencer T. Olin Professor and chair of the Department of Biology, through a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors grant. The program’s goal is to help students understand the interconnections among science, medicine, technology, and business. With BEP, Jez saw an opportunity to correct the compartmentalization that often happens early in undergraduate STEM education, while highlighting how scientific advances lead to real-world applications and engaging students’ curiosity through team- based project development.
“We tend to teach our STEM majors in a compartmentalized way and hope they see how it fits together when they’re juniors or seniors,” Jez said. “If you could give people a story up front about how all these things that seemed to be completely unconnected really are connected, starting their first year, would that help keep students in the sciences? Would it also influence a little bit of their future direction?”
The first year of the Biotech Explorers Pathway includes opportunities for students to study current biotechnology innovations in depth: What problem does a new technology aim to address? What are its implications in the market? What’s the science behind the innovation? Smith and her classmates collaborated to look at novel drugs, therapeutics, and other technologies from multiple perspectives, leveraging their interests in various disciplines, such as computer science, economics, engineering, and of course biology, to develop a more complete view of the biotech industry.
Expanding beyond the classroom, BEP students also explore off-campus spaces that support cutting-edge research in St. Louis, such as the Cortex Innovation Community. “So many biotech opportunities are right here, just a few miles from campus,” Smith said. “It was so great to go out into the community and visit this hub of innovation, see the facilities, and talk to the founders of these companies about how they got involved, how they took their ideas to reality, and how they were ultimately able to build a successful biotech company.”
These observations of the people and technology behind the biotech industry led Smith into the second year of the program, when students are asked to pitch and develop their own innovations to address a pressing problem facing society. Smith’s project focused on developing a fetal lactate monitor to help reduce the rate of C-sections, which carry risks or mothers and newborn babies. She saw an opportunity to develop a device that might be implemented to reduce mortality and improve maternal and fetal outcomes during labor and delivery. The experience was transformative.
“This was the first time where I independently took something I had read about that I knew was an issue in medicine, and thought to myself, what would be something that could actually help solve this problem?” Smith recalled. “It was the first and really only time in my academic career where I’ve had such ownership over a project and had to think creatively about how to take it from idea to implementation.”
Working on the project spurred Smith’s interest in interdisciplinary research in fetal medicine, which is further supplemented by her minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies. “I had the chance to learn how people’s identities, such as their gender and sexuality, can influence their lived experiences,” Smith explained. Her insights from the project reaffirmed her long-term goal to collaborate as a physician-scientist with partners in academia and industry to develop solutions to improve patient care, outcomes, and quality of life.
"It’s the kind of experience I hope all WashU students are able to find, whether it’s in Biotech Explorers, another Ampersand program, or anything else that ignites their interest. It’s something that will stick with me well beyond my years here."
For their projects, BEP students consider granular elements like production cost and marketability, in addition to the scientific feasibility of their ideas. The process even includes a conversation with an attorney to discuss features of their innovations that may be patentable. After time spent refining their concepts, students present the projects to a panel of judges.
“BEP students are exceptional,” said Marta Wegorzewska, science writer in the Department of Biology and co-instructor for the second year of BEP. “Even in the past two years, when judged presentations happened via Zoom, the students did as well as in any other year. It really speaks to how impressive BEP students are.”
Smith credits her time in BEP with supporting her other activities around campus, including leadership positions serving as speaker of the Student Union Senate and as one of two undergraduate representatives to the Board of Trustees. She is particularly proud of her advocacy for increased student access to mental health resources on campus, which were especially critical during the “Zoom academic year.”
“I felt empowered to take on these high-profile endeavors by my mentor, Joe Jez, as well as by my experiences in Biotech Explorers presenting to large groups, speaking up for what I care about, and developing creative solutions to important problems,” Smith said. “When you come to WashU, you hope to form close connections with your advisors and professors and find someone who will encourage you to be as successful as you can be. Joe has been that person for me. He has been extremely supportive of me throughout my WashU experience. That relationship started and grew from my first day in BEP.”
“Gaby is probably one of the top students I’ve interacted with as a faculty member at WashU,” Jez said. “She makes so many things look easy.”
After graduation, Smith plans to spend a year conducting research in pediatric medicine before entering medical school. In her career in pediatrics, she looks forward to incorporating research and advocacy with her clinical activities.
“I want to be on the cutting edge of developing new therapeutics and treatments for children, taking what I see in clinic and bringing it back to the lab and vice versa. I want to drive innovation and collaboration to improve biomedicine at large,” Smith said. “BEP has been crucial in shaping my goals as an aspiring physician. Being exposed to so many trajectories and opportunities has expanded my ideas about what I can do in the future and how I can effect change in society.”
Join the conversation!
Learn more about the exciting connections BEP students are finding between the lab and real world. Join a panel with former BEP students and Joe Jez at 12 p.m. June 21 CDT.