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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 15, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 3
Learning the Business of Biotech

Boro Dropulic, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine and founder of a biotechnology company, speaks at a recent Hopkins Biotech Network seminar.

Students flock to new group offering speakers, networking opportunities

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Graduate student Aditya Polsani must wonder what he has to do for an en-core, as the organization he recently co-founded appears to be the hottest act in town.

Polsani is president of the Hopkins Biotech Network, a student-run organization that seeks to promote education, career development and networking in the field of biotechnology.

The group was founded by Polsani and Joshua Groman, a doctoral candidate at the School of Medicine, in January 2003. In February, it was officially recognized as a university organization by the Office of Student Involvement, and in April the HBN received seed money from JHU's Graduate Representative Organization and held its first meeting. Since then, it's been all gangbusters.

Membership has swollen to 675 people since recruitment began five months ago. A seminar series, begun in June, has already featured industry-leading types including stem cell pioneer John Gearhart, the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine in the School of Medicine; Nicholas Nicolaides, the CEO and founder of Morphotek; and, most recently, Boro Dropulic, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine and the CSO and founder of VIRxSYS, a biotechnology company focused on the treatment of diseases such as AIDS and cancer.

Upcoming speakers include Kenneth Carter, president and CEO of Avalon Pharmaceuticals, whose talk is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 17, in Homewood's Clark Hall; and physician, entrepreneur and university President William R. Brody, who will speak from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 14 in 110 Hodson Hall, Homewood campus.

Polsani, who came to Johns Hopkins in January, attributes the rapid success of the group to an aggressive growth strategy, a coordinated team effort and the fact that nothing of its kind pre-existed at the university.

"We have also received tremendous support from Hopkins alumni and university administration," said Polsani, a master's degree candidate in biotechnology at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "In particular, the Enterprise Development Office, the Alumni Association, the Biotechnology Program in Arts and Sciences, Dean [of Student Life Susan] Boswell and the Provost's Office have been very helpful and given us their support."

At a recent event, HBN president Aditya Polsani talks with Blanche Johnson and board member Nora Zietz, both of JHU's Enterprise Development Office.

Polsani said the inspiration for the Hopkins Biotech Network came from similar organizations that exist at Harvard, Yale and MIT. He said Johns Hopkins, who many view as being No. 1 in biotechnology research, needed to have its own networking group.

HBN membership is free and open to all who have an interest in biotechnology. The majority of members are students at the Homewood, East Baltimore and Montgomery County campuses, each of which has its own chapter. However, an affiliation with the university is not a prerequisite to joining.

What has made the HBN so popular, Polsani said, is that it offers a valuable service to students who are "keenly interested to learn about career opportunities and the current landscape of the biotech industry."

The Hopkins Biotech Network's mission is to facilitate communication and build relationships between its members and the industry. In addition to the seminar series, the organization offers daily e-mail updates on industry news, a bulletin of biotechnology-related events and lectures in the area and, through its Web site and membership meetings, an opportunity to interact with alumni, faculty and industry professionals. The HBN also provides information regarding venture capital firms, law firms, biotech companies and business planning strategies.

Polsani said that while the university provides the science training, HBN's role is to educate people on the entrepreneurial side of things.

"For example, some students are interested in staring their own biotech firm, and that's something they really can't learn working in a lab," he said. "Others are interested in management, and through our lecture series and our message board they get to interact directly with industry leaders. Many of our alumni are very interested in returning to Hopkins to speak to students and help them pursue a career. This organization provides a wonderful opportunity to network that students simply didn't have before."

Polsani said that this organization is able to attract high-level speakers in part because of the Johns Hopkins name but also due to the efforts if its seven-member advisory board, which includes university administration and JHU alumni who are executives and senior-level administrators at prestigious law firms, universities and financial organizations.

Advisory board member Nora Zietz, assistant provost and head of the university's Enterprise Development Office, says that in a soft economy and with limited options for post-grads in academia, the timing is just right for a Hopkins Biotech Network.

"Some people simply don't know what they are going to do with their degrees. Not everyone can end up in academics," Zietz said. "If this organization does nothing else but facilitate interaction between industry, faculty and postdocs, then that in itself is wonderful. I have been to several of the seminars, and I can say that all have been well-attended, and each time out the members have more and more questions for the speakers, many of whom are happy to serve as mentors to these students. The reaction to the series has been simply magnificent."

What does the future hold for the Hopkins Biotech Network?

Polsani and Zietz agreed that membership will continue to increase steadily. In fact, the group's executive board targets a membership of 1,000 by year's end, and members are already plotting out next year's lineup of speakers. High on HBN's wish list are Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health and former executive vice dean of the School of Medicine, and Mark B. McClellan, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

"We have big plans," he said. "We are just getting started."

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