Connecting the Cultural Chasm


Peter Espenshade

Today, we announced the beginning of the Johns Hopkins-MedImmune Scholars Program, a first-of-its-kind PhD training program that builds upon our ongoing collaboration with The Johns Hopkins University. The initiative is intended to prepare students for careers in the biopharmaceutical industry. We caught up with Peter Espenshade, PhD, professor of Cell Biology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, associate dean for Graduate Biomedical Education, and director of the Center for Innovation in Graduate Biomedical Education, who will oversee the new program and who shared his thoughts on why this initiative is so important.

What was the catalyst for this initiative?

We began a collaboration with MedImmune in 2013, so this is an extension of that partnership. We have recognized the growing need to expand opportunities for PhD students, particularly as this relates to careers in the biopharmaceutical industry. It’s tough for students to break into this field. There are vast cultural differences as well as many misconceptions about what to expect. This program will break down these myths and prepare students for these careers through rigorous training that focuses on the professional skills essential to becoming part of the biopharmaceutical workforce.

What makes this program different from a traditional PhD track?

It’s quite unique—no one else is combining academic and industry training prior to postdoctoral placement. Students will be doing thesis projects jointly in both Johns Hopkins and MedImmune labs, and we’ll introduce them to the process and challenges of drug discovery and development. We’re creating new coursework that will be co-taught with scientists from both organizations, and students in the program have the opportunity to do a year-long internship at MedImmune. This is a full immersion and hands-on approach that they get while still obtaining a traditional PhD degree.

What are the specific benefits for PhD students?

Industry is the epitome of applied science, and students don’t typically get that insight within a traditional PhD academic environment. Postdoctoral training certainly offers that experience, assuming students get the placement they want. But, what we’re doing here is bypassing the postdoctoral step, and getting students more immediately involved in their careers right from the beginning of their training. For decades, traditional PhD programs have been primarily apprentice-based—we essentially train our students to be good professors. That’s no longer a sustainable model. This is PhD 2.0—we’re broadening the playing field, so to speak, and expanding into non-academic territory.

How will this ultimately impact both academia and industry?

Discovery and innovation demand that we create a bridge between academia and industry on a large scale. Fortunately, we’ve got two of the best organizations in the world right here to steward that vision. We’re both focused on the power of science and its impact on future inquiry, and we have a shared interest in training and nurturing the next generation of scientists. This new model of training is intended to inspire and excite students, and to stimulate new and executable ideas. The potential outcomes for this type of integration are immeasurable. Good for each of our organizations, good for students and good for science.