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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / May 2019 / Being Brave – How Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Can Increase Developmental Opportunities and Im

Being Brave – How Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Can Increase Developmental Opportunities and Improve Team Performance

By Ken Sims, MS, PhD Candidate in Translational Biomedical Science

“Be brave. Someone has to take advantage of this opportunity. Someone will receive the award, get the nomination, complete the internship, or participate in the workshop. Why not you?”

I have heard different versions of this paraphrased message multiple times over during my participation in the URBEST program. It is still as thought-provoking and inspiring to me today as the first time I heard it a few years ago. Most importantly, though, it is true.

This message resonated with me a little more than a year ago and prompted me to use my few hours waiting for a delayed flight during a conference trip to pull together an updated CV and cover letter for a first-of-its-kind URBEST experience: a Drug Development Workshop at Biogen in Cambridge, MA. As Robert Frost so keenly noted, that simple decision proved to make all the difference. Sure, I had seen the initial email notification a week earlier and had thought to myself “Hmm… sounds interesting, but at Biogen, a neuroscience company? No, that’s not for me.” I have never taken a single neuroscience class, so I figured that I was not a good fit for this opportunity. But when I saw the reminder email in my inbox during that flight delay, those words of wisdom echoed in my head: “Why not you?”. Was the fact that I had absolutely no experience in the company’s subject matter enough of a reason to pass on this unique opportunity? After going back and reading the notification a second time, I realized that I could definitely check some of the other boxes they were looking for in candidates:

  1. Graduate student interested in a biopharma career (check),
  2. Had previous experience in drug development (check – I had taken Paul Dunman’s Drug Discovery class a few semesters before),
  3. Within 2 years of finishing my graduate training (check),
  4. Desire to participate in a Biogen-sponsored trip to Cambridge, MA for a few days to participate in a new workshop and professional networking events (double check!).

Therefore, I decided to apply, and sure-enough, a short time later I received notification that I had been selected as one of two UR students for this opportunity. Not too bad for a last minute effort using a shaky airport Wi-Fi signal!

When the Biogen workshop finally arrived, I traveled to Boston and found they had booked the participants to stay at a beautiful hotel just a few blocks away from the company. As someone who had been wondering what it might be like to live and work in the Cambridge area, this experience proved to be a great trial run. Over the next few days, I witnessed some of the daily hustle and bustle of the biotech industry in the Kendall Square area and gained a better appreciation for what it would be like to actually live and work there.

In addition, I got a comprehensive overview of the drug development process through an industry lens. The workshop mainly consisted of multiple industry guest speakers sharing their personal success stories and tales of tragedy presented in the typical URBEST Career Stories format. Although the content and examples were often new, the takeaway messages were quite similar to those I had heard previously by URBEST guest speakers. Altogether, the drug development topics covered included Portfolio and Asset Management, Drug Discovery, Clinical Development, Computation and Data Analytics, Device Design, Medical Affairs, Regulatory Affairs, and Business Analytics.

While this aspect of the workshop laid a strong foundation of the general drug development process, it was the second part that proved more meaningful to me. To complement the daily seminars, all of the workshop participants were divided into teams and assigned a mock project that fell somewhere along the drug development pipeline. Each team’s goal was to present a Go/No Go recommendation to the rest of the participants on the final day of the workshop.

My group was given a project focused on moving a T-cell based therapy of our choosing on to Phase 2 clinical trials for treatment of glioblastoma. Fortunately, my knowledge gaps in neuroscience and T-cell cancer therapies were augmented by multiple teammates whose thesis work focused on these areas. While their expertise secured them as the subject matter experts on our team, I had to look a little deeper to understand my role and where I could best contribute. Given the short amount of time (less than 3 days) before we had to present and the fact that most of the allotted time for the actual project work occurred after 5 pm each day, we had no time to waste. To facilitate successful team dynamics on a short timeline, the workshop organizers inserted several teambuilding activities into each day’s agenda. Although some teams superficially went through the motions during these activities, my team fully embraced them from the start with each member repeatedly stepping outside their comfort zone to honestly communicate with the rest of the group. In short, we shared our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, past experiences, workstyles, expectations of each other, and more within the first twenty-four hours. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but these brief, insightful sessions actually made a dramatic impact on our team’s performance throughout the workshop. They helped me to figure out that I brought experience in project management and commercial manufacturing – two skillsets essential for successful Phase 2 clinical trials – to the team. They also helped our team to efficiently divide and conquer tasks to successfully meet the project timeline. In fact, by ~7 pm the night before presentation day, we were effectively done constructing and practicing our pitch, so we were able to go out to dinner and enjoy some time exploring Boston together as a team while other teams were still working. The next day, we made a strong case for our proposed CAR T-cell therapeutic approach and logistical plan as evidenced by finishing in the top three in peer voting for the best project presentation.

Overall, those few days in Boston taught me many new things about myself, teamwork, and the drug development process. I gained a new perspective on working in a team, and how getting everyone to buy in and be on the same page in a timely manner can dramatically affect a team’s success. These insights were strengthened further when I spoke with other workshop participants afterward and heard the differences in some of their team experiences. In the end, it seemed that the teams that were the most honest with each other, trusted each other, and actually upheld their roles and responsibilities throughout the project were the most successful and had the most fun. That’s certainly a lesson I will keep in mind for each team-based project I work on in the future.

Now, I always consider those three little words, “Why not me?”, every time I hear about a new opportunity through my email inbox, a poster in an elevator, or through word of mouth. And I would encourage other graduate students and post-docs to do the same. Because, who knows, a quick application while waiting for your delayed flight just might reward you with a great all-expenses paid, developmental opportunity at a global biotechnology company!

Tracey Baas | 5/6/2019

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