Career Center

BayBiotechReview: Insights into the Stanford School of Medicine Career Center

In March 2011, Michael Alvarez, Director of the Stanford School of Medicine Career Center, and Tilton Little, Publisher and Editor of the BayBiotechReview sat down to discuss the state of professional development for young scientists and clinicians, the opportunities for workforce preparation, as well as what may lie ahead for those with advanced clinical and research skills.

TL::  Michael - you have been a founder and director of centers for professional development at both UCSF and at Stanford.  Can you tell us a bit more about these operations – what gave rise to their establishment – and how are things going now?

MA: Sure, Tilton.  For many decades the ‘next step’ following advanced training as a biomedical researcher or clinician was pretty straightforward –  for the most part one would go on to become, respectively, either a research faculty member in academia or a practicing physician in one or another health care setting.  Over the past 25 years or so, we have seen significant changes in the biomedical science landscape – driven largely by global economics and efforts to improve the quality and affordability of health care nationally.  It has become increasingly apparent that academia, industry and government need to collaborate more effectively in order to translate research discoveries into safe and useful clinical applications.  And this, in turn, presented both the need and opportunity for scientists and physicians to work in new and different ways, to learn more about the various fields and sectors where their knowledge and training can be applied within an emerging labor market; these centers, in essence, are one of the ways that universities are responding to such real-world needs, preparing trainees to contribute in a wide range of settings – both traditional and new.  As for where things stand today, the UCSF operation is run by Bill Lindstaedt – they have grown steadily over time and have a really strong team in place, doing an excellent job, on both the education and external relations front.  The Stanford operation, where I am now, is also expanding to meet demand – through continually evolving curricula, individual work with trainees, and in our work with external organizations. 

TL:  So, as for external relations, it sounds like this is an important part of what you do – in order to really know what is going in different settings, and to keep ahead of the curve with trends; in what ways do you work with external organizations, and what types are eligible?

MA:  Absolutely.  Whether it’s the NIH, or a major biotech corporation, a teaching college, or local venture firm, we are definitely involved with a wide range of organizations across industry, government and academia.  In simple terms, we provide them with a reliable point of contact and access – helping them to navigate a complex University environment, to strengthen ties with researchers and clinicians here on campus, and to raise awareness about their particular ‘worlds’ here at Stanford.  Overall, the goal is to allow for the flow of information and ideas between groups, to provide opportunities for technical dialogue, and to help foster learning and the development of professional networks.  As an example, one of the things we do is to invite leaders from these various fields to present within selected coursework and seminars that we host, so they can bring insights on what is happening in their specific arena, describe the forces at play shaping their sector, and – in general – to advance the understanding that our medical science trainees have regarding a variety of real-world challenges that different companies and organizations are tackling.

TL:  Great.  That sounds like a unique and worthwhile way for companies to be engaged and to participate in the preparation of their future workforce.  You mentioned an annual event that you host each spring, called the Biotech Industry Day, on the Stanford medical campus – can you tell us more about it? 

MA: Well, this is something that I actually started doing at UCSF back in the 90s – and started here at Stanford about 7 years ago.  For a long time, there were no real formal programs through which biotechnology companies, consulting firms, national labs, publishing organizations, and investment groups could all convene under one roof – to interact with medical and life science folks within a particular university.  Initially I gave it a real generic name - a ‘Biotechnology Industry Day’ – because that way any and all groups that are part of the biosciences enterprise, broadly defined, would be covered and not excluded from participating.  It has sort-of morphed over time, from being predominately a straight-up recruitment event to being more and more of a forum where – career interests and professional goals are certainly fair game for discussion, but there is a decided change in that companies are sending senior scientists and practitioners, and it’s no longer exclusively seen as a place to come and hire people.  Identifying key candidates is definitely one of the things that companies like, and one of the outcomes that does occur – but it’s more and more the sort of thing where people are meeting and having interesting conversations, at a fairly technical level when it comes to the science… and when it’s a law firm or a media group, they are focusing on letting people know about how and in what ways their business is serving the medical and life science community… the sorts of markets they’re entering, and how and why it’s important for them to stay connected with and hire scientists… describe the sorts of people they’re looking for. 

TL: Interesting; so how do companies get involved – and is something where other folks, other scientists, from in and around the area can come and participate?

MA:  We have a great many companies that return year after year, and say that they find it to be a real value – there is a sliding registration fee, depending on the type of company, but it’s really quite reasonable... not the sort of thing that keeps anyone from registering really.  There is of course the time involved – making sure you have a qualified representative available to come and speak on behalf of your group or organization; they show up around noon, get set up, have a simple lunch that we provide, and then from 1 to about 4pm or so, you can expect to see anywhere from four- to six-hundred Stanford life and medical scientists come through – it’s really quite a buzz!  Lots of conversation, lots of good energy, people seeming to get a lot out of the dynamic and making a lot of good connections on the day.  As for non-Stanford folks (we do check ID’s at the entrance of the venue), there are usually some 30 to 40 or so non-Stanford folks… mostly from other universities, a few non-working scientists that are looking to network with some of the company reps, and these folks – not coming from Stanford, they pay a small registration fee of their own at the door… It’s all pretty straight-forward, laid out nicely on the website – that’s where companies go and sign themselves up, get registered… all the information is there, and if there’s any questions, there’s a number where they can call and get whatever assistance they need from one of the folks in our department.

TL: That’s great, Mike.  And now, as for things to come – and where you see things headed at Stanford, and more specifically with your own group – what do you see on the horizon… in terms of clinical and research training, the biotech industry, and – overall – the market for advanced clinical and research skills?

MA: Well… that’s a big one.  There are things changing, as we speak, and there is no ‘crystal ball’… but my sense is that there are tremendous opportunities on the horizon.  It goes back to – what I consider to be a fairly basic truism: that where there is a need, there is a market.  And we just need to make sure that we are preparing our best and brightest, a future generation of scientists and clinicians, to adequately tackle the real-world challenges that we’re facing – and for that to happen, we need to engage knowledge and expertise from all the various sectors, from industry, academia, and government – to help inform our understanding of what needs being done.  Let’s face it; you don’t have to look very far to see that we are facing some rather perilous challenges as a society and civilization.  Overall, Stanford is committed to preparing trainees for positions of leadership – in whatever area they choose to work.  And as a University, I have to say that I’m very proud of the role that Stanford plays in preparing future leaders, and how it mobilizes resources and intelligence to address the challenges we face – both locally and globally.  It’s going to be the result of a combined effort; we’re going to see, in my estimation – and in my hopeful view of things to come – a situation where medical professionals and researchers are going to come to learn a lot more about the different ways that they can be of help to society; from a variety of angles, come up with approaches and ways to implement thoughtful strategies… that will hopefully lead to more affordable and accessible healthcare, and to fast and efficient production of safe and effective drugs and devices to the marketplace, and – again – from an economic standpoint, helping out both regionally and nationally to ensure the skills of our highly trained medical professionals are being put to use in ways that make the most sense, and help us to remain competitive within a global marketplace in a world that is changing rapidly.


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