As life sciences Ph.D. holders in the United States find more and more postgraduate work at for-profit companies, more and more institutions offer internship programs and career guidance services that aim to give students a taste of the industry . Now, a university is taking it one step further by allowing students to spend the majority of their PhDs. training at a biotechnology startup.
The plan was met with mixed reviews. Some see it as an exciting opportunity for students amidst the rapidly evolving PhD. employment landscape. Others fear that students will not have true graduate school experience and may suffer from limitations on their academic freedom.
The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) announced the plan at a city hall event last month, telling the campus community that the university had signed a deal with Altos Labs, a science-focused Silicon Valley startup. of cellular health, resilience and rejuvenation which has raised billions in funding from wealthy investors. The agreement paves the way for UCSF graduate students to work under the supervision of scientists based in Altos, including UCSF faculty who moved into the company in March and maintain unpaid faculty status.
Two students have signed so far, both of whom were already working in the laboratories of scientists moving to Altos. “It’s a rare opportunity to explore the balance of curiosity and mission-driven science within a collaborative and resourceful group,” says Zach Cogan, a second-year Ph.D. student now residing in Altos. “This is the kind of environment I want to do my training in.”
The plan builds on other career development and support programs available at UCSF, including a program that helps graduate students find off-campus internships, notes UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, the administrator who led the discussions with Altos before signing the agreement. “For me, this was a natural extension,” he says. He also allows faculty moving to Altos to continue supervising graduate students, which some have expressed a desire to do, according to Altos Labs founder and chief scientist Rick Klausner. “We want Altos to be part of the academic ecosystem,” he adds.
Under the agreement, students will complete courses at UCSF and will be able to do first-year lab rotations at UCSF and Altos. Those who choose to work with Altos researchers will remain almost entirely at the company for the remainder of their doctorate, although they will retain access to graduate student functions and on-campus support. In return, Altos will pay UCSF to cover each student’s tuition, fees, and salary. The company also pledged $ 25 million for the university’s undergraduate programs over 5 years, to be used at the discretion of the graduate division dean, Hawgood says.
The agreement – which was signed on March 1 but few at UCSF saw it – also specifies that Altos-based graduate students will be “employees of UCSF and not Altos Labs” and will not be able to receive any “financial incentives.” significant or significant marginal benefits ”unless UCSF-based graduate students receive something similar.
The program will be overseen by a governance committee and changes will be made as needed, Hawgood adds. “This is complete freedom of choice for graduate students to decide to do their thesis work in Altos. There is no fee or … obligation on our part. So we are excited to be able to make this option an option for students in the coming years. “
Stephen Floor, an assistant professor of cell and tissue biology at UCSF, has not decided whether he is in favor of the deal. “There’s a chance this will turn out to be a really interesting experiment,” as long as the needs of the students are put first, he says. But Floor fears that students based in Altos, which is 30 kilometers southeast of the UCSF campus, will lose interactions with peers. “The community is really an integral part of the graduate school. … There is a lot of institutional knowledge that is held by the student population that is really important for students to access. “
He notes that partnerships between universities and for-profit companies are not unusual, pointing to a recent agreement between Johns Hopkins University and Amazon that will fund graduate student scholarships to do research on artificial intelligence. “What’s not common is… their main yard is based in a for-profit company. And I think that’s the focus of the conversation. “Another UCSF professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that the deal” touches a nerve “with some members of the campus community because Altos is seen. as a “new, secret, strangely funded company”.
Many in the UCSF community have also expressed concern that commercial interests would impede the ability of Altos-based graduate students to communicate their findings to the scientific community and finish their degree within the typical time frame. “The people who support the company are professional investors and that puts financial pressure on the results,” commented one.
Klausner doesn’t foresee this to be a problem due to the company’s operating model, which aims to be a hybrid of academia and industry. All the scientists working at Altos, for example, have academic freedom policies written in their contract. “They are free to publish; they are free to cooperate, ”says Klausner. Prior to publication, the company will review a document to see if there is any intellectual property to protect. But “it’s no different from universities,” he argues. “This is the only constraint, not just for graduate students, but for all Altos scientists.”
The 20-page agreement signed by Altos and UCSF representatives includes steps aimed at protecting the academic freedom of UCSF graduate students based at the company. “Both Altos Labs and UCSF wish to avoid any potential commercial pressure which, in a for-profit organization like Altos Labs, may have the potential to limit the normally free exchanges that are so important to the success of graduate students and other trainees, ” it is read.
But given that few have had the opportunity to actually read that agreement, let alone contribute to how the partnership was shaped, the lack of transparency frustrated many in the campus community. “I think there is definitely an implementation of this that could be really beneficial to students,” says Zara Weinberg, a postdoc in cell biology who works with Hana El-Samad, one of the UCSF faculty who moved to Altos. in March. “But I think such a demonstration will not happen … without the contribution of the whole community,” she adds. “It’s hard to believe that any decision the UCSF makes is in the trainees’ best interests when they don’t involve trainees in that decision-making process.” (Weinberg had the option to move to Altos, but she decided to stay at UCSF, a decision that El-Samad fully supported and welcomed, she says.)
According to a statement from the university, “UCSF faculty and students are not normally involved in negotiating agreements around an industrial partnership. … However, the Chancellor has consulted with the leaders of university education and executives of faculty on the agreement before it was signed “.
Anna Lipkin, a sixth-year PhD in neuroscience. UCSF student who served on her program’s executive committee last year, when discussions with Altos began, advised first- and second-year students not to move into the company, telling them, “This will fail. It will be terrible. You’re going to be mistreated, and besides, it’s a small company, it’s so far from our campus. Isolation itself is just such a risk. “He wishes the university started its partnership with the company along a more traveled path, such as summer internships for Ph.D. students. Adds Mark Gergues, a Ph.D. A student who served on the same executive committee as Lipkin, “There are many ways that graduate students can gain industry experience, and this just seemed like the most extreme version.”
“Maybe a lot of these people’s worries would be minimized if we really knew what’s going on,” Floor says. Ultimately, he continues, the experiment the UCSF is undertaking “raises questions about credentials and what it means to do a PhD. She raises questions about the type of training you are looking for. Can you get that training in the private sector? Maybe you can. “