25th Anniversary Celebration of the Biotechnology Undergraduate Program at Rutgers University


On April 1, 2016, Rutgers University hosted a daylong symposium celebrating the graduation of Rutgers’ first class of biotechnology undergraduates, who completed their degrees in 1991. The event was organized by Dr. Barbara Zilinskas, professor emeritus and founder of the Biotechnology undergraduate program at the university.  The symposium consisted of eight alumni speeches and two panel discussions—one of which was composed of Master’s of Business and Science alumni who previously graduated from the Biotechnology Bachelor’s program. The event took place from 9am-9pm in the Douglass Campus Center and students of all educational backgrounds were encouraged to attend.

After the welcome remarks, which were delivered by Dean Robert Goodman, PhD, the first speech of the morning was given by Brandon Saks, MBA (class of 2006). During his speech, Saks attempted to dispel the notion that obtaining a PhD is a requisite for success in the pharmaceutical industry. As a testament to this opinion, Saks spoke of his current job as Project Manager at BMS. Although he does not have a PhD, Saks achieved a leadership role within the company. In his current role, Saks draws from both his science expertise and his business knowhow to inform his decisions.

Brandon Saks responding to a “Biotech Jeopardy” question posed later in the evening.

Saks’ sentiments were echoed by another alumni speaker, Michael Mahar, Ph.D. a public health advisor. According to Dr. Mahar,

You can be a great bench scientist, but you can also do so much more. [You can] secure labs in Afghanistan, work with beer scientists, be a science expert in documentary films, [or] guide the future of research at big agencies like DARPA. I am glad I did my PhD; it gave me six more years of practice in working with uncertainty and persevering, sometimes in the face of failure. But you can do lots of interesting things without a PhD too.

Alumni speaker Dr. Michael Mahar (right) conversing with professor emeritus Dr. Theodore Chase, Jr. (left).

Karen Century, PhD, reiterated the notion that there is plenty of interesting work available within the industry for scientists without a PhD. Dr. Century is currently a project manager at BASF, but just like Dr. Mahar, she acknowledges that careers can be unpredictable. Although she argues that having a career plan is vital, she also emphasized the importance of remaining flexible along the way. Even in volatile fields such as the biotech industry, events that may appear to be failures are often opportunities in disguise.

After Dr. Mahar finished his speech, the audience turned their attention to a panel discussion among various successful individuals representing different paths within the biotech industry. The panel was moderated by Dr. Paul Meers, who serves as the director of the Rutgers biotech undergraduate program, as well as a professor within the PSM program. Panelists included:

  • Dr. Marian Gindy, Director, Sterile Product Development, Merck
  • Dr. Jon Heinrichs, Associate Vice President, and Segment Head, Early and Pre-Development Projects, Sanofi-Pasteur
  • Dr. Jason Simon, Director, Clinical Development, Janssen Diagnostics, a Johnson & Johnson Affiliate
  • Dr. Steve Sun, CEO, GENEWIZ

Based on their first-hand experience in the industry, each panelist offered career advice to the aspiring scientists in the audience. Several of the panelists highlighted the immense breadth of opportunity within the pharma industry, arguing that the majority of jobs within the industry do not involve lab coats. Instead, most employees perform commercial tasks such as marketing or regulatory compliance. It is the individual’s responsibility to determine his or her unique interests and take charge of his or her career. Dr. Simon and Dr. Heinrichs added to this argument by stating that most jobs are not listed online. Some positions are even created specifically for the individual who recognizes an opportunity. And according to Dr. Gindy, as science becomes increasingly integrated, there is a growing demand for individuals with interdisciplinary training.

In response to a question from the audience, the panelists then discussed ways to enhance “soft skills”—communication abilities and other interpersonal graces that are highly desirable in the eyes of an employer. To get noticed in a large pharma company, Dr. Simon suggested volunteering to take responsibility for projects outside the scope of one’s job description. Dr. Sun noted that it is practically impossibly to achieve quality results without fostering quality relationships along the way.

Dr. Deborah Silver (right) connecting with a student (left).

After the industry panel, there was a brief intermission for lunch before the audience reconvened to listen to a speech given by the keynote speaker, Dr. Dennis Fenton. Dr. Fenton received his PhD from Rutgers University in 1977. He then worked at Pfizer for four years before joining Amgen at its inception in 1982. During his speech, Dr. Fenton outlined helpful suggestions for industry-bound scientists. Since business and science are both team-based ventures, he emphasized the importance of honing one’s communications skills. Effective communication only becomes more important in managerial roles. Dr. Fenton frequently asked himself “Why do you go to work every morning?” to help communicate his vision to his employers. He summed up his advice as follows:

How does science training prepare you for jobs? It makes you fact-based. You can look at the data, form a hypothesis and test out hypotheses. When things don't turn out the way you expect, it's a learning experience. Failure is a learning experience. Don't get depressed; go back to the lab. If someone offers you a job you did not expect, take it. Respect and help people. Maintain work-life balance. Make sure you are always having fun. Hire people [who are] smarter than you. Communicate expectations clearly and hold people accountable. Take risks. Create and communicate a motivating vision.


Dr. Dennis Fenton (left) talking with MBS student Alex Li (right) before the dinner reception

Later in the afternoon, a second panel was assembled to discuss the career opportunities afforded by the Masters of Business and Science degree. The panelists, all of whom graduated from the MBS program at Rutgers, were as follows:

  • David Brandt, B.S. 2011, M.B.S. 2012, International Business and Account Development, GENEWIZ
  • Steven Le, B.S. 2012, M.B.S. 2013, Junior Associate, MK&A Pharmaceuticals
  • Atiya Taqui, B.S. 2009, M.B.S. 2012, Assay Development Associate III, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals
  • Margaret Warren, B.S. 2010, M.B.S. 2012, Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University

The panel was moderated by Dr. Michael Lawton, a professor at the University who also serves as the Biotechnology and Genomics MBS Concentration Coordinator. Throughout the course of the discussion, all the panelists mentioned the importance of risk-taking. Le would not have landed his current job had he not taken the risk to apply to a job outside his comfort zone. And Taqui had the courage to move between five different life science companies since graduating in 2009. Brandt also took sizeable risks. After serving as a supermarket manager for 18 years, he decided to open a carpentry business. But when he fell from a ladder and broke his foot doing carpentry work, he decided to enroll in community college to pursue biotech. He then enrolled in the Biotechnology program at Rutgers and proceeded to earn his MBS. According to Brandt, “the most important thing the MBS gives you is an understanding of the possibilities.”

With that understanding, Brandt then began his path of “lucky relationship-building”—as he describes his approach to getting his foot in the door at GENEWIZ.

I started to fill in or insert myself wherever I was needed. I helped with IT, whatever was wanted. Scored chromatograms. When the courier was out sick, I took over. I got on a first name basis with researchers.

Dr. Michael Lawton (right) addressing the audience during the MBS panel. Panelists David Brandt, Margaret Warren, Atiya Taqui, and Steven Le are shown from left to right.

Warren, who moved from the MBS into a PhD program, had had a much less winding career path than Brandt. However, according to her, the MBS served as a “launching pad” for that path. Warren encouraged the audience members to seek out mentorship at the university. All of the panelists touted the importance of taking advantage of one’s connections.

After several other alumni spoke about similar topics, the final alumni speaker, Dr. Oluwafunmilola Okuyemi, walked on stage. Dr. Okuyemi is a graduate of the Rutgers Biotech Class of 2004. She now serves as an Associate Fellow at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. In her parting words to the audience, Dr. Okuyemi offered the following advice: “Respect all. You never know who might come to your aid in the future.” It might be someone in the audience.

Finally, Dr. Barbara Zilinskas offered her heartfelt thanks to everyone in attendance and drew the event to a close. Biotech alumni were encouraged to attend the dinner reception that followed. At the reception, each table competed in a game of “Biotech Jeopardy” and the night ended with a sense of nostalgia and camaraderie.

MBS students and biotech alumni sitting down to dinner with industry professionals.