By Jenna C. Glatzer, PhD Candidate
Responses are lightly edited for clarity
Interview with W. Taylor Cottle (TC) and Jessica Joseph (JJ), HBN Co-Presidents and PhD Candidates
For our readers that aren’t as familiar with the Transcript and Hopkins Biotech Network (HBN), could you give a short background on HBN’s mission statement?
TC: HBN’s mission is to create a stronger biotech community which addresses the interests of its members. We at HBN focus on critical issues in biotechnology and seek to bridge the gap between the three main stakeholders in the biotech field: industry, academia, and government. At Hopkins, HBN provides a platform to educate graduate students and postdoctoral researchers about opportunities within Hopkins and in the greater [biotech] community through the four branches of our organization: Industry Relations, Entrepreneurship, Alumni Relations, and the Transcript. We were founded in 2003 and have grown our network to include over 40 mentors, 600 newsletter subscribers, and a robust network of alumni representing companies around the globe.
What was your previous academic background, and can you briefly describe your graduate research?
TC: I come from a molecular and cell biology background, having done research in interleukin protein folding at UCSD and cancer biology of sodium transporters at USD. My current research revolves around understanding DNA editing tools like CRISPR, and applying these tools to quantitatively study DNA repair using imaging techniques like single molecule, super resolution, and cellular fluorescence microscopy. I am personally interested in the role DNA repair plays in senescence and aging.
JJ: My focus has been on molecular neuroscience, starting with understanding G-protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signaling in Schwann cells to improve peripheral nerve regeneration at Wash U. in St. Louis. As a student in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine Program here at Hopkins, I extended my research in peripheral nerve repair, specifically focusing on an RNA modification called m6A. My thesis project explores the regulation of a protein called connexin 43 (Cx43), which is involved in the pathogenesis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a deadly neurodegenerative disease. Within each area, I am always driven by how the research might one day lead to therapeutics.
How did you get started in HBN (i.e., were there specific career goals that led you to the organization, or was there a particular event you attended that made you passionate about HBN)?
TC: The mission of HBN has always resonated with me. Many students enter graduate school not knowing the plethora of career opportunities available to them. HBN strives to connect students with the appropriate networks to explore these options and resources on campus in order to leverage the Hopkins alumni network.
JJ: I agree with Taylor! As much as HBN is about connecting people both in and out of the Hopkins community with careers in biotech and beyond, it’s also about normalizing careers outside of academia and breaking down barriers. I first heard about HBN because of the Treks they hosted to large and small pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and found that both the members of the group and the people interested in pursuing industry careers were incredibly smart, motivated, and talented. One of the hardest parts of the PhD is learning to be creative and brave when facing the unknown, and our goal in HBN is to help propel those to an industry career who would like to utilize those hard-earned traits in a translational setting.
What are your future career plans?
TC: Earning a PhD has been my goal for a long time, but only at the end of undergrad did I appreciate all the things you can do with a PhD outside of traditional academia. The speed at which biotechnology has grown is staggering, and the potential to change how we treat disease excites me. After my PhD, I hope to either work in a gene-editing or cell therapy startup, or in consulting for biotechnology companies.
JJ: I am very excited and grateful to be starting as a Consultant for the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in July of 2020. Within BCG, I plan to focus in the Healthcare sector to bolster my understanding of the complex healthcare landscape. Through working with various biotech and pharma companies, I hope to gain a broad but detailed understanding of how R&D and operational logistics coincide within industry. My long-term goal is to help bridge the gap between understanding the unmet needs of various patient populations and getting much-needed therapeutics onto the market in a safe and affordable manner.
Were there any events run by HBN or connections you made through Hopkins that helped solidify this path for you?
TC: Meeting Jessica, our current co-president was probably the most important connection I’ve made at Hopkins so far. She opened the door to the business world of science for me and has been a great role model and friend.
JJ: Taylor you’re going to make me cry! I’m honored to have been able to help you on your career path and am already so impressed and proud of the way that you have picked up the torch for HBN. These kinds of connections are exactly what we try to foster in HBN, and I consider myself very lucky to have made such good friends like Taylor along the way. These are connections that will last well beyond our tenures as PhDs.
As if you both weren’t busy enough, are there other activities you enjoy doing around Baltimore?
TC: I love music and when not in the lab you can often find me at the Baltimore Symphony or the Shriver Concert series. I’ll play cello at the hospital or with friends occasionally when I’m not too busy and do my best to keep up my chops.
JJ: I would highly HIGHLY recommend hiring Taylor (for pretty much any instrument) to anyone looking for a professional musician for a party- he’ll be the highlight of any event! Advertising aside, I also love singing and was in a band for a little while, in addition to recreational leagues for volleyball and soccer in and out of Hopkins.
How has HBN grown since you first joined the organization?
JJ: One of our goals has been to unite the Hopkins community not just by expanding our membership, but also by working with existing entities on campus that can help facilitate members’ ambitions in entrepreneurship and biotech advances. We’ve done so by partnering with various groups such as the Professional Development and Career Office, Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures, and Fast Forward University. We have also expanded our connections to companies in and around Baltimore such as with Early Charm Ventures, Flagship Pioneering, Papgene (now Thrive Earlier Detection), Personal Genome Diagnostics, AstraZeneca, and more. I am proud of how hard the HBN team has worked to expand our footprint in the DMV area, and am confident that moving forward, the group will continue to make meaningful connections to various stakeholders within industry.
What initiatives or events by HBN are you looking forward to in 2020?
TC: BioPitch is one of our big events for 2020. This is an entrepreneurship competition co-hosted by HBN and the Fast Forward University at Hopkins. We are bringing in judges from around the entrepreneurship community in Baltimore to help mentor and judge a group of select early stage but dedicated startup teams to compete for a $1000 cash prize, and the chance to network with experienced entrepreneurs.
Since it’s still early 2020, many biotech-focused publications are asking leaders in industry and pharma what they expect the biggest industry trends to be in 2020. Can you comment on recent news or biotech developments that you’re excited to see playout throughout this year?
TC: I’m excited to see how prime editing and Cas-mediated transposase gene technologies are used in translational therapies. Additionally, I want to see if the new cystic fibrosis triple therapy proves to be as effective as hoped. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has several impressive gene therapy initiatives driven by venture philanthropy that I hope to see take off in the next several years.
JJ: Although I’m not a cancer biologist, I think it would be hard to look forward in industry without getting very excited about the various cancer therapeutics that are really at the peak of research advancements. In particular, I think watching CAR-T cell therapy will be extremely exciting as the basic science and production come to a head. Trying to develop a system to expand patients’ own cells on a mass scale will be an incredible challenge with a huge payoff for both patients and companies alike. This is also, of course, an extremely pressing matter to make the life-saving treatment both safe and affordable, and will demand novelty and creativity on the side of companies and payers in order to be utilized on a global scale. Generally, the development of immune system treatments is a fascinating and exploding area of research, and will no doubt be at the heart of understanding and treating many diverse diseases and systems, including neurodegeneration.
Hopkins Biotech Network 2020