Building a dream biotech world
Why being an undergrad in biotech is hard and how to make it better. Ft: A turning point for Nucleate Dojo, and we're recruiting!
Being in biotech is really, really hard. When I first entered university in 2020, I was surprised to find that the majority of my program alumni, a talented group of biomedical engineers graduating from a top technical school in Canada, didn’t even end up working in the biotech or life sciences field. Every so often, I’ll bump into someone who used to be in biotech or thought about being in biotech but is now in a completely different industry despite still being interested in bio-related problems. I’ve gathered that there are a couple of reasons for this:
“There are no biotech opportunities at the undergraduate level” — many positions require a Ph.D. or above. There is no ‘known’ centralized platform to source opportunities.
“I don’t know what to work on in biotech” — education about biotech key players, sub-fields, and pertinent problems is inaccessible. No one knows where to begin.
“Biotech doesn’t pay well” — undergraduate researchers are paid very little, if at all. There is a hefty ‘start-up’ cost required in biotech work (i.e. to purchase lab space, reagents, equipment, etc.).
“Biotech is too slow for me” — science discovery moves slowly and translation can take years. You don’t get an immediate reward for your work and it requires a lot of effort to achieve large-scale impact (e.g. compared to the software industry).
“None of my friends are in biotech” — for the above reasons, biotech can be difficult to navigate alone, and it can feel very isolating.
Collectively, biotech has a huge barrier to entry and is incredibly confusing to navigate. It requires having domain-specific knowledge, financial means, and a support network to prioritize it over a lucrative tech job or a stable career in medicine. The ability to veer off path is a privilege most students don’t have.
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An aside: what am I referring to when I say ‘biotech’?
Biotech is a field that uses cutting-edge tools and technologies to advance human biology and accelerate life science discovery. What are a few examples? Synthetic biology is a booming area in biotech right now — here, we apply experimental tools to manipulate genetic structures like DNA and RNA to do a specific task that we want. Strand Therapeutics is a company that does this — creating mRNA therapeutics using synthetic biology. We’ve seen mRNA being successfully used in vaccines, but there’s a lot more potential to it; Strand has found ways to modify mRNA to treat cancer by making the mRNA identify and fight cancer tumors in the body.
Another big focus in biotech now is longevity, which is trying to treat age-related diseases and reverse the effects of aging. There are also neuroprosthetics and neurotechnology, which applies technology to enhance or treat the brain. In general, biotech involves the process of researching and engineering new tech solutions for health and biology, and then bringing it into the real world through commercialization. If you’re stumbling across this post and just want to learn more about what biotech is, I’d encourage you to check out this biotech handbook that my friend Sana (DojoHouse alumni) and I put together.
Biotech doesn’t have to be so hard
Coming from a tech and industry-focused institution, some people stare at me weirdly when I tell them I’m in biomedical research and that my goal is to pursue a Ph.D. after undergrad. University institutions are echo chambers set up to nudge and influence everyone toward a similar destination; this is different depending on where you are —for me, this was a career in tech. I felt lonely and lost in my freshman year when I arrived on campus and realized that there was no one else as excited as I was about biotech. Am I at the right place? Where do I belong?
I somehow stumbled across Nucleate Dojo in my sophomore year and joined its leadership team. This immediately changed the game for me — I felt inspired, re-grounded in my goals, and cared for by a like-minded community of biotech leaders. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Dojo is the reason why I’m still in biotech right now; it has made me rethink what is possible at an undergraduate level and has pushed me to pursue my internship experiences at biotech startups and academic labs around the world. Joining Nucleate Dojo is hands down, one of the best decisions I made in undergrad.
Since I joined in April 2022, Dojo has fully conceptualized and launched three unique, highly impactful programs: DojoGrants, DojoExplore, and DojoHouse. At the base of all of this is a global community of talented program alumni who have gone on to do incredible, jaw-dropping things in biotech, whether that be launching their own startup or pursuing a graduate degree at a top institution. We’ve proven to ourselves that with an attunement to students’ needs, courage, community, and a sprinkle of pizzazz, we can actually change a lot about biotech.
We can build infrastructure to make biotech more accessible
Nucleate Dojo is building the training ground for undergraduates to enter and succeed in biotech, ultimately lowering the barrier to entry into biotech. We do this through three main avenues: capital, open-access education, and community.
DojoGrants (capital) — the first institution-agnostic, year-long grant program to help support undergraduate research projects in the life sciences, focussing on supporting students who are financially disadvantaged.
DojoExplore (open-access education) — a 6-week biotech course that is geared towards training undergraduate researchers in the fundamentals of the biotech sector and biotech venture creation, run in collaboration with student organizations on university campuses.
DojoHouse (community) — a Boston-based biotech hacker house hosting talented undergraduates from the U.S. and Canada on their path to becoming the next top biotech founders.
This trifecta has proven to be powerful in enabling undergrads to find and work on meaningful problems and exposing them to a myriad of career opportunities and people to further cultivate their interests and goals. In the coming year, we are looking to scale and build more robust, sustainable models for all three programs.
We can build pipelines to bring more diverse talent into biotech
In the past, Nucleate Dojo has focussed its programs on the tip of the funnel — selecting students who have made it through our selective application processes and/or have proven to us their potential in biotech. We recognize that most of the undergraduate population are unaware of biotech opportunities to begin with, and would like to dip their toes into the space in a low-commitment way.
A huge focus for Dojo this coming year is to broaden our reach at the top of the funnel: to build the narrative that anyone is welcome in biotech and to show them how to break into the field. We are committed to tackling the diversity problem in science head-on; to bring new and fresh perspectives into biotech. This means that we will be on the ground building better branding strategies and partnerships with DEI-focused organizations, small to mid-sized colleges and universities, and other geographic-based partners to bring our scholarships, educational resources, and community to more students.
We can take care of one another
Nucleate Dojo ultimately aims to embody a counter-culture against rigid academic institutions, the limits of current educational curriculums, and pre-defined life sciences career paths; not because something is wrong, but because there is a collective sentiment that something can be better. We’re a beacon bringing people together and along with us to reshape what’s possible in the bioeconomy.
Community building is hard because it requires you to wholeheartedly believe in a world that doesn’t exist yet. At its core, the Dojo community is just a group of friends who want to build a dream biotech world. We hold the space for each other to explore ourselves and our potential. Biotech is hard, and it can be lonely. Science tells us we need more discoveries, more publications. But beneath all of this demands a slow-affecting, persisting cushion, a safe haven where people convene to take care of one another, to define how we should approach the future and how to get there—together.
We can cultivate the next biotech leaders
This year marks a huge turning point for Dojo — it is the first time we are operating entirely without the original co-founders. We’ve spent the past years laying the groundwork for our initiatives, and now our focus is on scaling our impact while sustaining and expanding the scope of our founding objectives. The managing director team, Kim and I are excited for where we can take Dojo this year and for years to come:
“I’m excited to open up biotech to voices from all backgrounds and walks of life, and that starts with undergraduates. Regardless of if this is your first time hearing the word “biotech” and you’re curious to learn more, or if you have several years of research experience under your belt, Dojo will be your community and home. Come join the family!” — Kim Tran (Co-Managing Director, Senior at Princeton University)
Join the movement
We’re currently looking for people to join our mission of empowering the next generation of biotech leaders and building the infrastructure to make science and biotech better.
You don’t need to be in biotech to join. We’re looking for people who are committed to and excited about what we do and can work well in a nimble and collaborative team environment. What are we recruiting for? Pretty much everything — across programs (DojoGrants, DojoExplore, and DojoHouse), and across portfolios (Community and Insights, Branding and Design, Internal Operations, and Sponsorship and Outreach).
Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis until October 25th, 2023 at 11:59 PM PT. We especially encourage applicants from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds and disciplines outside of the life sciences. If you’re interested in learning more about what we do, feel free to visit our website at dojo.nucleate.xyz and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
We’re also always looking for new collaborators! If you’re a company or organization is interested in supporting Dojo’s initiatives, please check out our Support Us page or send us a note at email@example.com.
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