Naturejobs 430, 812 - 813 (12 August 2004)

Networking, Networking, Networking, Networking, Networking

MYRNA WATANABE Myrna Watanabe is a freelance science writer in Patterson, New York.

For comments, or story ideas, please contact Naturejobs at naturejobseditor@naturedc.com

Drinks with a few dozen friends or a visit to an interesting employer: Myrna Watanabe meets groups finding informal ways into work.

Grace Wong thrusts a microphone into the face of a young woman in a crowded room "Make a smart pitch". The young woman has one minute to tell the audience who she is. Like them, she is taking part in a Nobel Pauling Biotech Symposium, named after the laureate who was one of Wong's mentors and organized by Student Vision, a group Wong set up to aid biotechnology students. Besides supplying all the free dim sum participants can eat, the free symposia teach scientists of all age and skill levels how to network. They are not only put on the spot, but provided with formal talks, informal panels and plenty of schmoozing opportunities. Scientists of all ages are coming up with informal clubs and functions beyond the usual job fairs, meetings and graduate-student seminars at which to meet potential employers or collaborators. They may have speakers from local biotech or drug companies, or sponsor 'treks' to nearby employers. Some members discover career options that they didn't know existed.

Let's Get Together
Most meetings include networking time, and that's the main function of Biotech Tuesday in Boston. Some 160 people attend each monthly event, which frequently has several recruiters showing up, says Seth Taylor, managing general partner of life-sciences consultancy Vectur, who co-founded Biotech Tuesday in 2002. The success of these informal events has inspired new groups such as BioConnect in Connecticut. Sponsored by biomedical group Connecticut United for Research Excellence and Yale University's Biotechnology Student Interest Group (SIG), BioConnect's first event, in May, attracted at least two chief executives who were looking to hire people.Bringing students and industry people together is a prime function of the clubs. The California Institute of Technology is located in Pasadena, well away from the California critical masses of San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. The closest biotech company is Amgen, about 68 kilometres away in Thousand Oaks. The Caltech Biotechnology Club has taken advantage of this proximity by having an 'Amgen series', where executives spoke about different aspects of the company's business. After the series concluded, the club sponsored a trip there and is now planning a similar jaunt to San Diego.

Graduate students and postdocs at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia found that their science departments emphasized training for academia, so they organized the Penn Biotechnology Group to find out about opportunities elsewhere. Career treks have shown 600 or so members the scope of work available at nearby biotech and drug companies. Mohita Mohan, a biochemistry and molecular-biophysics graduate student, helped to organize a recent career trek to companies in King of Prussia, a suburb of Philadelphia. She found a large concentration of biotech firms there, but "they never tell you about this in your classes". On the trek, Mohan learned not to think that a biotech firm will automatically be hiring. Some are changing their model and not taking on new R&D personnel, and others, hoping to be acquired, will not necessarily offer secure employment.Lectures on law, consulting firms, the business end of pharma and biotech, and venture-capital firms have also influenced members of the Penn group. "We had a few lectures on consulting I didn't know they hired people with PhDs," says Cassia Cearley, a second-year graduate student in a neuroscience programme. She is now considering a career in consulting.

Enlightening Lunch Yale's SIG sponsors several different types of talk, including a formal lecture followed by lunch with the speaker and an informal discussion group with an invited guest. These have included a chief executive from a local biotech company, several corporate vice-presidents and someone from bioinformatics. One discussion group featured a headhunter who talked about preparing for a job interview. Eric Anderson, a co-president of the Yale SIG, who recently completed a postdoc and is about to begin an MBA, learned through the SIG that there was more to science than academics and cell biology. "It's given me a broader perspective of roles one can play," he says. Faculty members and students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, joined to form the Hopkins Biotech Network, which has sponsored formal seminars. Co-founder and master's student Aditya Polsani says members appreciate the chance to meet industry people and gain a broader perspective on the industry

Learning from the Leaders
From the other side, industry organizations are also inviting young scientists to meet company leaders. In Britain, for example, the London Biotechnology Network sponsors monthly BioWednesdays which include networking. Although these are mainly meant for the industry, graduate students and postdocs are welcome. "We positively encourage young people to come along and see how businesses were started," says Marjory Goodall, healthcare executive with the economic development initiative London First, which founded the network in 2000. In Australia, the industry body AusBiotech encourages students and postdocs to get involved. "Networking is the biggest factor attracting people to attend an event, so we always schedule time for this," says Fiona Smith of the Queensland branch. The branch holds five breakfast meetings a year at which three speakers may address a 'hot topic'. An annual careers night, originally for students, is now also aimed at people in the industry considering a career-path change. At September's event, six speakers will discuss their careers, to be followed by a showcase at which companies can meet potential employees. About 250 people went to the New York Biotechnology Association's job fair in May, and 500 attended a day-long career seminar co-sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences and Naturejobs. This featured separate panels for academia, biotech and industry. The EuroScience Open Forum 2004, to be held in Stockholm, Sweden, on 2528 August, will have formal talks on careers sponsored by Naturejobs.

Wong, who doubles as president of ActoKine Therapeutics of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, is firmly behind the informal approach. She says that more than 20 people have received biotech or drug-company offers through the Nobel Pauling Biotech Symposia, proof that free dim sum and a microphone in the face can force interactions and lead to jobs.