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Aug 13 / Kristine Peterson

Mission Possible: What a Drug Development Conference Taught Me About Teamwork and the Importance of Confidence

Avery August, professor of immunology and BEST program PI at Cornell University; Matt Fountain; Brooke McKnight; and Cherie Butts, associate medical director at Biogen

This past June, the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program provided the funding for fellow doctoral trainee Matt Fountain (immunology) and me (cancer biology) to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend a drug development conference for early-career scientists and clinicians sponsored by Biogen, a biotech company that specializes in developing drugs for neurological applications. The three-day conference centered on such topics as the approval process for new drugs, how to generate a strong package of research data for presentation, how to interact with policy makers, and how to differentiate between corporate development and corporate strategy. In attendance were about 40 senior Ph.D. students, postdocs, and M.D. students, all from BEST institutions around the country and all with varying knowledge of the drug development process.

When Matt and I first arrived in Cambridge, we received a folder. Inside was our itinerary, an article about working as a team, and a mysterious envelope with a number on the front, sealed by a sticker with the word “Mission” on it. All of the workshop attendees convened in the hotel ballroom for a welcome dinner. Here we introduced ourselves to our team members. My team was composed of early-career scientists from UC Irvine, Georgia Tech, UMass, and Vanderbilt. We were each handed a large piece of paper and a permanent marker and asked to write our answers to questions such as “What strengths do you bring to a team?” and “What has your journey into science been like thus far?” Next, we all opened our sealed envelopes. My team learned we were responsible for a research-to-development transition of a new drug for neuroblastoma. At the end of the conference, we would present a proposal on this mission using knowledge gained during the conference.

After our formal dinner, a large group of attendees from all teams congregated at a local restaurant to discuss our current positions, how we found ourselves at this particular conference, and our hopes for the future. I learned that, although we’re all from different universities all over the country, we all shared the desire to advance healthcare, and that’s what we sought to do.

The next two days would be spent in a boardroom at Biogen headquarters learning the ins and outs of what makes the company tick. We heard talks from staff scientists, policy advocates, regulatory affairs personnel, business development leaders, and everyone in between. The conference developers did a fantastic job of selecting presenters who would fit in with our team objectives. We heard from researchers to development transition personnel, clinical trial experts, and preclinical scientists. On our tour of a Biogen lab space, we learned about the core facilities on which they depend. Dr. Michael Gilman, a serial entrepreneur and biotech guru extraordinaire, even stopped by for a fireside chat. He imparted his wisdom about how to have a successful career in biotech (spoiler: stay hungry), how to learn from your failures—or in his case, how being fired can actually be beneficial—and how to be a member of a high-performing team. His talk was the least structured, but also the most enlightening. During dinner that night, I learned all of the attendees felt the same way.

From these presentations and the talk with Dr. Gilman, we had all of the tools necessary to develop our proposals. The night before our final day, presentation day, was crunch time. We split into our teams, which scattered throughout the hotel lobby to busily develop proposals on laptops. After hours of PubMed and Google searches, our presentations were complete and then sent to the organizers.

On the final morning, we convened in the same ballroom where we’d all met the first day. But this time it felt different. Instead of everyone sitting at a separate table as we did upon arrival, we all bunched together, no space left between us; the room loud with chatter, despite the early hour. After breakfast, we moved into a room resembling the set of American Idol. There were round tables with water, microphones, pens and paper, facing a stage with five microphones, a podium, and a projector screen. All teams took turns introducing their product proposal, strategy, and appropriate background information. The audience members all asked thoughtful questions, utilizing the skills cultivated in the days before. At the end of the presentations, we were all awarded our completion certificates, the cheering deafening as each attendee was called up.

We all left as abruptly as we arrived, but this time—after a flurry of photos, exchanges of contact information, and shared Lyft rides back to the airport—we had all gone from an anxious group of strangers to a solid alliance of friends.

During the conference we had many opportunities for team-building. Whether in the form of sit-down lunches and dinners, or organized worksheet-based activities, I learned a lot about myself, about the importance of self-examination, and how to effectively communicate and interact with a diverse team. I learned how to develop clear goals, and how to position each member to use their strengths for the benefit of the group. This experience broadened my knowledge of the drug development process, but more importantly, it taught me how to collaborate skills that would translate well to any career.

It also built up my confidence tremendously.

Now that I am finishing up my Ph.D., I am applying for positions that I would not have felt prepared for prior to the BEST-Biogen Drug Discovery Workshop. I am excited to use the skills I cultivated for my next mission.

by Brooke McKnight

Brooke McKnight is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the cancer biology program at the Karmanos Cancer Institute. She received a B.S. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Michigan in 2014. She has research interests in immunotherapy, medical genomics, and companion diagnostics.

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