A Letter from Michael P. Nusbaum, PhD

Michael P. Nusbaum, PhD Professor, Department of Neuroscience Director, Biomedical Graduate Studies

Michael P. Nusbaum, PhD
Professor, Department of Neuroscience
Director, Biomedical Graduate Studies

Dear All:

Welcome to the summer 2016 edition of The Dish!  It has been another eventful year for the Penn BGS Community.  The highlight of our year was the BGS 30th Anniversary Event (Oct 8-10, 2015), which we revisited at the end of last fall in The Dish. As you may know if you are a regular reader of this column, we kicked off our first significant fundraising effort at The Event.  Encouragingly, to date we have been joined in this endeavor by ~35 of our BGS faculty colleagues and ~40 BGS alumni.  Collectively, their donations have added ~$40,000 to the BGS Fellowship Fund.  In fact, we are highlighting one of our generous alumni, Dr. Cassia Cearley (PhD, Neuroscience Graduate Group) in this very issue.  Our goal is to develop sufficient income through this outreach mechanism to enable graduate student support to become at least partly independent of the grant funding process.  As most of you know, governmental support for biomedical research has lagged, and the prospects for a rebound are uncertain at best.  This is particularly unfortunate given the great opportunities for new knowledge and their practical consequences made available by so many new technologies.  Therefore, I am hoping that you will join us in this effort by donating to the BGS Fellowship Fund.  Who better to appreciate the value of our programs than you, our alumni, students, and faculty?! 

We are, in parallel, reaching into the world with this fundraising drive, but I believe that our success with this latter effort will be more successful if we can advertise that our core community has explicitly invested in it.  No gift is too small.  Every gift counts; it represents not only fiscal growth but a show of solidarity towards our goals.

Returning to The Event for just a moment: If you haven’t yet viewed the student/advisor videos or the photos, it's worth your while—they are must-see material! 

One pivotal aspect of The Event was the participation of the visiting alumni in a series of Career Development Panel Sessions and a Career Fair, which were very well attended by current students.  We aim to continue inviting back our alums on a regular basis to better inform the current students about career opportunities. 

Given the considerable expansion of career trajectories for current students, we have recently taken additional steps to better inform them about their career opportunities.  One new initiative is the development of the yearly IDP (Individual Development Plan), the goals of which are to ensure that (a) students and mentors communicate openly, and (b) students are working proactively and effectively to develop the skills they will need to succeed.

We also recently created a new faculty-level position, Director of Training Support and Career Development (TSCD), whose inaugural occupant is David Manning (Prof., Dept. of Systems Pharmacology & Translational Therapeutics).  Dave is tasked with centrally managing and supporting (1) training grant and fellowship applications, (2) career exploration & preparation, and (3) overseeing and administering training in the responsible conduct of research (RCR).  It's early days for this new endeavor, but Dave has been hard at work developing material for several new websites, including one focused on careers and another on RCR, which will be rolled out this summer.  It is a pleasure working with him on these projects; Dave is deeply committed to these goals and has been working creatively to provide value-added.

As May wound down, we experienced the bookends to our annual cycle of student training, including learning who will populate our incoming class (123 new students!) for 2016 and celebrating the graduation of this past year’s cohort of PhDs (120 PhDs from the August & December 2015 and May 2016 cohorts).  Graduation was a fun event, attended by 58 graduating students, their thesis advisors, families, friends and colleagues.  Gratifyingly, a record number of thesis advisors (42; more, really, as several faculty had 2 or even 3 students graduating) were in attendance to hood their graduating students.

Our admissions/recruiting season was also a great success.  First, our applicant pool remains quite strong, and we exceeded our target goal of 110 matriculating students (40% of admits), which resulted from an above average matriculation rate (44%).  Second, for the 3rd year in a row, we more than doubled our previous average annual matriculation rate for students from underrepresented (UR) groups.  Prior to 2014, this latter cohort was ~10%-14% of each incoming class.  In contrast, from 2014-2016 this cohort represented ~30% of each incoming class.  This year, for example, there are 30 UR students among the 113 matriculating domestic (US citizens) students (27%).  The national average for matriculating UR students in STEM PhD programs hovers ~10%.  We are quite proud of this accomplishment, as diversifying the biomedical research enterprise is a prominent and important national goal in addition to being a priority for us.  I particularly want to acknowledge and shout out our appreciation to Arnaldo Diaz, Asst. Dean for Research Training Programs and Director of Recruitment & Retention of Diversity Scholars, without whom this success would not have occurred.

Please enjoy this issue of The Dish.  And thank you for considering a donation to the BGS Fellowship Fund.

I hope you have a great summer!  Until next time, happy trails to you.  


Michael P. Nusbaum, PhD
Professor, Department of Neuroscience
Director, Biomedical Graduate Studies

The Sine Qua Non of Tech Success: Connections between Talented People
A Q&A with Ben Doranz, GR’98, WG’01

Ben Doranz, GR'98, WG'01 President and CEO, Integral Molecular

Ben Doranz, GR'98, WG'01
President and CEO,
Integral Molecular

Ben Doranz, PhD, MBA, is President and CEO of Integral Molecular, a University City-based biotechnology company focused on the discovery of therapeutic antibodies.  Dr. Doranz, who co-founded the research enterprise in 2001, completed a PhD in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania Biomedical Graduate Studies program in 1998, and a MBA at the Wharton School in 2001.  The Dish spoke to Dr. Doranz about his company’s keys to success, including its relationship to and collocation with Penn, and what he says to Penn BGS students during his frequent speaking engagements on campus.

Q:  Why did you choose to start a biotech company in University City?

A:  I’ve been in Philly for over 20 years, and started the company based on technology with which I was already familiar.  I chose this part of Philadelphia for a similar reason. Our location is a huge and, well, integral part of Integral. Our business is dependent on physical infrastructure, adequate space, resources, equipment, and, most importantly, talented and driven people.  We are situated among an exceedingly supportive, collaborative, problem-solving community—Penn, Drexel, CHOP, the Wistar Institute, Jefferson—with $1 billion of resources within walking distance.  Our location in close proximity to Penn, in particular, was a natural fit since our founders, inventors, and technology all come from there.  Most important—more than the technology itself—is the network of skilled individuals, mentors, and advisors, as well as the recruitment pipeline of bright students, that this location brings.  We wouldn’t be anywhere without great people.

Q:  What or who were your major influences before Penn?

A:  A virologist named Jim Casey was my mentor at Cornell, when I was an undergraduate.  I worked in his lab for three years and found it inspiring and fun, getting encouragement to ask independent questions that most intrigued me.

After Cornell, I started as a technician at Wistar/Penn.  I worked with John Engelhardt and Jim Wilson, joining their lab as one of their first employees when they moved from the University of Michigan to Penn (they both had joint appointments at Wistar).  There was an amazing team of scientists in Jim Wilson’s gene therapy lab at the time, and it was exciting to see experts in various fields, including virology and cell immunology, collaborating and dedicated to finding cures for diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

Q:  What makes the Biomedical Graduate Studies program special?

A:  BGS has so much to offer, with diversity of expertise and the availability of so many fields.  When I enrolled at Penn, I hadn’t decided on a specialty.  The flexibility of the BGS program gave me the opportunity to explore different courses and work with various investigators.  Penn has a wide range of personalities and fosters meeting such folks and, in particular, matching with a great mentor.  I was fortunate to meet Bob Doms and felt that he would be the right mentor for me.

Q:  Can you describe what it was like to be in his lab?

A:  It turned out that Bob was, indeed, a great mentor for me.  Two years after my postdoc, he also helped me get my first grants when starting the company. Working in his lab was great; it was a creative, enlightening environment where I made tons of connections. Bob, Paul Bates, and Jim Hoxie were all involved in patents of our initial technology.  I met Joe Rucker and Sharon Willis there, and have now worked with them for over 20 years.  They were co-founders of Integral and serve as Vice Presidents.

Q:  How did Wharton fit in to your career plans?

A:  After leaving Bob’s lab, where I worked on HIV coreceptors, I maintained an interest in developing and applying new technologies to drug discovery.  As a postdoc, I volunteered in what was then Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer (now the Penn Center for Innovation) to help translate other technology coming out of Penn into licenses and startups.  After being immersed in this work for a year, Wharton felt like a natural next step.  I worked with great folks there, several of whom helped to build the foundation for Integral.

Q:  You come back to campus frequently—what’s it like talking with current students?

A:  It’s always satisfying to help students think about their careers.  Many students are not aware of various options available to them.  It’s great if they’re doing research in a lab in which they’re comfortable, but I think it’s also important to let them know that there’s other opportunities out there.  In fact, I take advantage of our location just a few blocks away and visit for informal talks at Penn and Drexel to let students know that we’re hiring.  Half of our company is composed of Penn and Drexel graduates.  Positions such as writers and project managers are ones that might not be on the radar for many students, particularly those that are entrenched in research.  Giving students those opportunities outside the lab is also one of the reasons I co-founded the Penn Biotech Group, which has helped thousands of students get experiences, and ultimately careers, outside the lab.

I also stress that you don’t have to be good at everything (of course, it’s great if you are).  As graduate students or postdocs, you get used to doing everything—cloning, modeling, experimenting, then preparing figures, writing papers, presenting data. At Integral, and certainly at many labs at Penn, too, there is a collaborative, team approach.  We identify the strengths of each individual, focusing on their particular talents and how they can best contribute.  It’s a message that I think many students appreciate.

Cassia Cearley, GR'07 Senior Director, Corporate Strategy and Alliance Management Aptinyx Inc.

Cassia Cearley, GR'07
Senior Director, Corporate Strategy and Alliance Management
Aptinyx Inc.

Cassia Cearley, GR’07, received her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania, and has made steady and significant career strides since then.  She recently showed her gratitude to Penn with a philanthropic gift to the Penn Medicine Biomedical Graduate Studies program.  The Dish spoke to Dr. Cearley about her motivation to give back as well as her career track since her 2007 graduation.

Q:  What have you been up to during the last nine years?

A:  I’ve been in the consulting world for the better part of the last eight years.  After serving as an engagement manager in the life sciences practice of L.E.K. Consulting, I became director of portfolio management for the corporate portfolio of Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Deerfield, IL.  I moved on to Naurex Pharmaceuticals, in Evanston, IL, where I served as director of corporate development.  I am now senior director of corporate strategy at Aptinyx, a small neuroscience biopharmaceutical company spun-out of Naurex before its 2015 acquisition by Allergan.

My role at Aptinyx, interestingly, feels like coming full circle in that I’m now using more of the scientific knowledge I obtained in my PhD program than at any other time in my career.  While I wear many hats at Aptinyx, getting back to neuroscience has been the most enjoyable part of this stage in my career, as one of my roles is to run the pre-clinical development to identify lead compounds.

Q:  What trends do you see emerging in science?

A:  I think we need a better bridge between scientific innovation and business.  More researchers are seeing a need for alternative funding sources and turning to the private sector earlier than in the past, especially in the areas of applied research and developing therapeutics.  In addition, as intellectual property (IP) requirements and exclusivity timelines are tightening, increasingly any academic lab interested in seeing their research get to market should have a good understanding of IP.  Technology transfer offices are proliferating at the university level and, on the IP side, there is a need for training students and researchers about such trends.

Q:  Is there a moment or experience from your past that led you to becoming a scientist?

A:  I’ve always been interested in science.  My first microscope was a gift when I turned 8 years old.  I think my earliest career aspirations were geared toward entomology, but I didn’t realize that the focus was mostly on pest control—I switched to neuroscience because the workings of the brain seemed so cool but such a mystery.  I grew up in Seattle, with early exposure to biotech companies, and thought from a young age that I would want to be involved in that industry.

Q:  What attracted you to Penn for your graduate studies?

A:  Penn has so many experts who produce leading, groundbreaking research.  I had read about the innovative work Penn was doing in neuroscience and gene therapy, which particularly intrigued me.  I was especially hopeful about the prospect of studying with eminent faculty ways to explore gene therapy in diseases of the brain.

Q:  What makes the Biomedical Graduate Studies program special?

A:  It is entrenched in a world-renowned medical school, which is also associated with other prominent schools, including a world-renowned business school.  The BGS program is open and flexible, so I had the chance to take classes in the gene therapy track, which was not part of neuroscience.  And I had opportunities to meet and collaborate with Wharton students through the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA) and the Penn Biotech Group, and take an entrepreneurial class as well.  This really helped to open my eyes to the business aspects of research, which helped to directly pave the way for my entrée into a consulting career.

Q:  Your mentor was John Wolfe. Can you describe what it was like to be in his lab?

A:  Dr. Wolfe was already doing gene therapy when I arrived, and he was very open to further investigation and new ideas.  In fact, he was willing to let me define my own path while providing great insights along the way.  I believe I was the first neuroscience PhD student in his lab.

The BGS program was just as flexible, really, as I was allowed to do three rotations in labs none of which were in neuroscience.  The work of Jim Wilson and Jean Bennett as well as other gene therapy folks at Penn really captivated and inspired me.  It was a privilege to be able to learn from all of them.

Q:  Why did you choose to make a gift to support fellowships at BGS?

A:  Generally, education is incredibly important to me, and I’ve always chosen to support paths to education.  I find it difficult and challenging to see peers struggling with funding in academic medicine.  Decreases in funding from the NIH have forced institutions to be creative and to rely more on other funding sources including philanthropic support.  I had such a great experience at Penn and find it so critical for students to be able to define their own paths.  Funding is a key element in facilitating such autonomy for students.  So, I would summarize by saying that I understand the need for funding support, funding allows for educational flexibility, and I have a deep interest in supporting education.  I am thrilled to be able to support graduate education in biomedical sciences at Penn because I had such an overwhelmingly positive experience there.

Upcoming Events

Neuroscience Graduate Group:

NGG Student-Led Retreat
Friday, September 2, All-day, beginning at 9AM
Rubenstein Auditorium and Smilow Commons, Smilow Center for Translational Research, Penn Campus

Please contact Yeri Song (yerisong@mail.med.upenn.eduif you’re interested in attending or learning more.

Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Group:

CAMB Symposium
Friday, October 7, 8AM - 6PM
Perelman Quadrangle, Penn Campus

Keynote Address:
Paula Cohen, PhD

Professor of Genetics
Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine

Please contact Meagan Schofer (mschofer@mail.upenn.edu) if you’re interested in attending or learning more.

Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics Graduate Group:

BMB Annual Retreat
Thursday-Friday, November 17-18
Skytop Lodge, Skytop, PA

Please contact Kelli McKenna (mckennak@mail.med.upenn.edu) if you’re interested in attending or learning more.


NEW CAMB Student Newsletter and Blog

Check out the first issue of the new CAMB Student Newsletter as well as a new student blog, both produced by the CAMB students.

If you would like to learn more about Penn Biomedical Graduate Studies, contact Torren Blair at torrenb@upenn.edu