The Journey from Academia to Industry with the Help of BioTrain
Retired BioTrain Program Manager, Mike Smith, interviewed by a past ‘student’ whose career transition from academia took shape through BioTrain’s industry-driven curriculum.
It was late 2015, and like many 4th year PhD students I felt lost and anxious with what I needed to do to prepare for my future career. I knew for sure that I didn’t want to do academia, but I had no clue how to navigate the transition to biotech or what skills I needed to be a competitive job candidate. I frequently attended networking events as a way to meet potential mentors and make connections, and that November I had attended a networking event hosted at Montgomery College Germantown campus’s new Bioscience Education Center. I was in absolute awe of the facility and the amazing equipment and resources that were available there. It was at this event that I learned about the BIOTrain program, which offered free workshops aimed at training the next generation of biotech professionals. Naturally, as a graduate student my interest was automatically piqued at any mention of the word “free”, and when I took a closer look at the course curricula I new that I needed to become involved with this program. Free workshops on bioinformatics, drug development, and protein purification? Yes, please—sign me up!
I attended my first BIOTrain workshop in January 2016, which was a two-weekend workshop on effectively communicating within a business environment. From there, I was hooked on BIOTrain and made an effort to attend as many courses as I could. Each course was taught by a professional in the biotech field, which meant the training was top-notch and current with the latest trends. I was able to get my hands dirty learning the ins-and-outs of protein purification using FPLC. I learned how to negotiate and how to have a high-stakes conversation. I learned the basics of quality control and assurance with regard to ISO standards. And, perhaps most memorably, I got to know Dr. Mike Smith, who served as the former program director for Montgomery College and helped establish the BIOTrain program.
Mike retired this past February, but before his move to Pennsylvania I was absolutely delighted to chat with him to learn more about the story of BIOTrain and how he envisions the program moving forward.
The initial idea for BIOTrain goes back to 2014 when EARN Maryland, a workforce development grant program “designed to ensure that Maryland employers have the talent they need to complete and grow in an ever-changing 21st century economy.” expressed interest providing awards to help develop new partnerships. Mike and his colleagues wanted to develop a program specifically designed toward training individuals who were interested in entering the biotech realm. As a trained biochemist, Mike did what any good scientist does—he and his team went out to collect data from various local biotech industries on what skills professionals wanted to see in their workforce.
“Prior to coming to Montgomery College I had been in the biotech business for many years, and so when we went out to talk to people I figured these companies would be looking for technical skills—things like microscopy, bioinformatics, and protein purification,” said Mike.
“As we talked to more and more people, though, we found this wasn’t the case at all! Biotech industries were much more interested in soft skills—leadership, communication, negotiating, etc. At first this was really surprising to us, but as we thought about it more it made total sense. You might be a wizard at pipetting or know how to program a protein purification column in your sleep, but do you know how to operate and maneuver within a business environment? Those are the skills these people were really looking for, and those aren’t skills that you necessarily learn during your master’s degree or PhD.”
When Mike and his staff met up with EARN Maryland to discuss what they learned as they surveyed the industry, they were even more shocked to find that having soft skills was not something unique to biotech.
“There were over 25 partnerships that met up to report their findings, and what was really interesting what that we all were reporting the same thing! All employers, regardless, of specialty or field, wanted their employees to have strong soft skills. It totally made us re-evaluate the type of classes we wanted to have in the program.”
Mike and his team were ultimately successful in their application and were one of many partnerships chosen to receive funding. EARN Maryland awarded them $120,280 to build the BIOTrain curricula, and from there it was off to the races! They continued building relationships with industry, nonprofit, and government partners, and as such set up a series of workshops focusing on a variety of topics, such as business communication, operating in a regulated environment, high-stake conversations, speaking in the spotlight, and many others. In addition to soft skill-focused workshops, there were also a fair share of classes focusing on building technical skills such as protein purification, bioinformatics, and drug development.
Not only did Mike help spearhead the establishment of BIOTrain, but he also is an active BIOTrain student himself! During the BIOTrain workshops I attended, Mike always made an effort to sit amongst the participants and actively engage in the discussion, telling stories and providing his own experiences from years in the industry.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re fresh out of school or are a seasoned biotech veteran—I find there is always something valuable to take away from these courses. Even as we’ve run some of these classes for a second or third time, I still feel like I’m learning something new each time I sit through them. Our course instructors are just that incredible and knowledgeable, and that’s really what I’m most proud of in setting up BIOTrain.”
Since it’s initiation, BIOTrain has grown immensely. According to the 2017 EARN Maryland annual report, BIOTrain currently has nearly 30 employer partners and has trained nearly 350 people.
Moving BioTrain Forward
Mike and his team have worked hard to successfully set up the program, leading to the obvious question of “What’s next for BIOTrain?”
I could see the excitement in Mike’s eyes as he started to answer this question. “I think we’ve set up a really strong foundation here in Montgomery County, but I also really want to see BIOTrain take off worldwide. We want to start offering our courses online and on-demand to extend our reach. We also want to start offering certifications so that as our participants are applying for jobs or asking for a promotion, they can show a physical document indicating that they’ve put the extra effort to attend our workshops, and because of that they have our full support”.
He added, “What we also really want to is to also make BIOTrain more of a community rather than just a series of workshops. I’ve been reaching out to a lot of people to help get a new BIOTrain interactive online platform set up, and while it’s been challenging I’m very excited for where things are heading. When you look at these huge biotech hubs like Boston, I think that sense of community is really the key. We can build new buildings and start new companies all over the DMV, but if we want to be competitive we need to establish ourselves as a community. We want participants to be able to build and customize an online profile and be able to engage in discussions with each other. We want to be able to pair them with mentors in the industry who can help them answer what I consider to be three core questions: 1) Who am I? 2) What am I good at? 3) What do I want to do?”
He chuckled, adding, “These sounds like simple questions to answer, but you’d be surprised once you sit down and really start thinking about it. I’m still trying to figure some of them out myself!”
As Mike transitions to his new role as “Retired Grandfather”, there is no doubt that his efforts, both in developing the BIOTrain program and his general role as program coordinator at Montgomery College, have helped many people grow in their professional careers and personal lives. Not only that, but the foundation that he has left will continue to help professions for years to come.
I think I speak for many in the DMV when I say it’s been an absolute pleasure to know Mike Smith, and we wish him the best in retirement and future endeavors!
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