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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Rethinking Researcher Education

Gertrude Elion won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1988. After obtaining her Masters in Chemistry she worked as a secretary and a non-paid substitute teacher. Eventually she landed a research position fully putting her education to use. The education however, was merely information used to aid Gertrude on her journey to discovery. The education was a tool. Initially she was unable to pull that tool out of the toolbox to land a job. As a tool in landing a research position, it was like using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. Those who evaluated Gertrudes ability and personality missed her Nobel Prize winning potential. Luckily for the human race, someone eventually recognized what Gertrude had and she was allowed to conduct research.

It is thus important for the researcher to find him or herself in that place of integrity, as Feymnan wished. It is not always easy. Gertrude grew up in an era where women were looked down upon in the work force, especially in the sciences. Women were secretaries and kindergarten teachers (not that there's anything wrong with those jobs). Gertrude undoubtably applied for many a position in research after obtaining her M.Sc. People in the position to hire her did not see her potential. I would suggest that even today, without the sexism, people in the biotech/pharma world have no way to spot that caliber of mind.

In todays world, Gertrude Elions Master degree would put her below the likes of Silvia Bulfone Paus, Phd. The two computer searchable terms, M.Sc. PhD., put Silvia Bulfone Paus ahead of Gertrude. Silvia however, is a known Cargo Cult Scientist, a non-searchable quality. Gertude had a non-searchable quality. All the HR gals and their computer programs in the world could not run a search discover a Gertrude Elion. 

 Douglas Prasher is an example of an individual having a difficult career in spite of Nobel Prize worthy research. He found himself in more than a few "wrong places". He did the reverse of Gertrude and went from researcher to menial task employee, driving a courtesy van for a local car dealership. The low level government employees that Prasher worked for did not see in him what the two individuals who won the Nobel Prize (based on Prashers cloned protein) had seen. Prasher was capable of research but was in the wrong place. His work spawned a multi-million dollar patent, hundreds of jobs, a powerful research tool and two Nobel Prize winners. He drove a courtesy van while all this was taking place.

Research cannot be measured hourly. The value of a person with a M.Sc. who runs the HPLC QC team at Trustus Rx. can be measured by the hour. Each hour of their work life that ticks away is just another stack of paperwork that is required by the FDA. Someone has to do it. The researcher is different. They might be working on the foundation of a skyscraper of an idea. Not everyone can see that foundation. They are the kind who look up to see the finished product. They do not know what holds tall buildings up. 

The latest suggestions for improving innovation and creativity from industry leaders:

... how best to innovate, and how to do it more often and efficiently, is top of mind for executives at many large corporations.
Constructing Innovation Supply Chains for the Pharmaceutical Industry - Noubar B. Afeyan, Venture Capitalist at Flagship Ventures
The innovators should be working closely with the acquirers from the early days, getting regular feedback. The pharma company can provide what Afeyan calls "Darwinian pressure" to force the startup to run the key experiments needed to prove the value of their idea, rather than simply guessing what the pharma companies want to see.
A Biotech Innovation Supply Chain: Reality or Fantasy? - Luke Timmerman, Bio/pharma Cheerleader, Xconomy 
Drug companies often lament that the firms from which they are sourcing innovations do not perform clinical trials to their specifications, forcing them to repeat the work. Nevertheless, they are reticent about providing such specifications in advance – even when innovators request them – perhaps to protect their market position or internal efforts. Moreover, the same companies compete directly in the supply of innovative technologies. The result is a broken supply chain. 
Fixing the Innovation Supply Chain - David Berry, partner at Flagship Ventures

While each thought-leader has ideas for fixing this broken system, they have each left out the notion that they themselves are in the position of their predecessors who had the option of hiring Elion or Prasher. Rather they focus on the innovations, they successes that come from people they have yet to find. If the innovators they speak of continue to fit in the usual mold, PhD, Ivy League school... you fail to acknowledge the biases that get in the way. Gertrude was a woman. Prasher went off to work for fools. How can the leadership wade into a pool of unconventional candidates and find the people who are creative?

Formal public education began in the early 1800s to create workers for the industrial age. Currently, our education system continues to churn out potential workers, innovators, and the geniuses who put it all together. We now have a good assessment of how the system is working. Each company is a mirror of the education system. Often PhDs will serve as the "dissertation committee" that judges the work of the B.Sc. lab staff, just as they were judged as grad students. They all thrive for a consensual approval. Yet the consensual approval, that leads to publications in grad school, needs to be put to the test of developing technology. In other words, innovation is suppose to be the end product, not a published paper that no one will read. It is thus the education process that tends to teach that the end product is a piece of paper, be it a diploma or a published paper. Innovation is different.  The education is a tool for the individual to use to apply to research. Innovation requires a highly engaged workforce, free to be creative, constantly learning new techniques and skills. Research is different than those who work on a conveyor belt, churning out a product they hope will be accepted by executives and venture capitalists.

They say in computer science, a degree above a bachelors is not important. The education for the work and the innovation comes on the job. Education only provides you with the tools to get started. It's up to the individual to know how to use those tools. That is currently not the case in biotech/pharma. The leaders are not using any scientific tools to spot the talent. In the case of Gertrude Elion, that gap in science employment, post graduation, would have kept her from obtaining a job in 2013 just as surely as being a female kept her from a job in 1940. We have many rules and ideas in selecting who gets to shine and who gets to drive courtesy vans. We have HR gals scanning resumes with software tools. They aren't working. It's time we study what has worked and see if we can find a new way of learning how to innovate. In time the innovators will teach the VCs and executives how to spot talent. 

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