Contributed Benjamin Laccetti (2019): In the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to serve as an intern in the Formulations Department at Biomarin Pharmaceutical. I contributed to this company as they work towards approving Valoctocogene Roxaparvovec, an investigational gene therapy for the treatment of Hemophilia A. This treatment is on pace to be just the third gene therapy approved by the FDA.
Working in formulations, I studied non-ionic surfactants which solubilize and disperse adeno-associated virus capsids, the molecular machinery that enables Biomarin's potentially life-changing gene-therapies. Using chemical assays sensitive to hydrogen peroxide concentration and reverse-phase high performance liquid chromatography, I studied how stable these surfactants are in response to oxidative and thermal stress. The results of my research show just how stable these surfactants are in worst-case scenarios for both elevated-temperature and hydroxide ion exposure.
At Biomarin, I learned how to get the most of an organization with copious analytical techniques and gained clearer perspective of the roles I would like to search for when I graduate from Caltech. Even though there are seemingly endless resources and technologies available at Caltech, my research involves building and testing custom equipment, not working with typical research techniques. At Biomarin, I quickly had to build a repertoire of common analytical techniques to get research done in a short amount of time. I learned that I should schedule multiple trainings for individual instruments, and I should interview my colleagues to determine which techniques are the most effective.
By the end of the summer, I felt very capable running my own analytical research project and acquiring the skills on my own that I need to be successful working in a relatively large company. While I enjoyed my time working in formulations, I longed for engineering, not analytical science work. I wished I could have gained experience working with specific industrial unit operations, so I looked to other departments to see what other employees worked on. After conducting several informational interviews, I found that positions in process development or automation would suit my skills in engineering and experimental/process design. I am grateful to have had the chance to do this internship because it gave me a much clearer idea of the types of roles in industry that I would thrive in and enjoy.
Contributed by Anders Knight (2019): For three months over the summer of 2019 I was an intern at Codexis (Redwood City, CA). Codexis is a biotechnology company focused on engineering enzymes for a variety of markets including food and beverage, biotherapeutics, and pharmaceuticals. Their platform technology has been developed and optimized over the years to streamline the quick and effective engineering of proteins for industrial applications. Codexis' protein engineering has been showcased in their collaboration with Merck on engineering an enzyme to catalyze a key step in the synthesis of the antidiabetic pharmaceutical compound sitagliptin, their cascade to produce a stevia sweetener, and again in the past week (December 2019) when they published a collaboration with Merck on engineering five enzymes in a cascade for the efficient synthesis of an investigational pharmaceutical compound for the prevention and treatment of HIV.
A major factor for me in applying for and joining the Biotechnology Leadership Program was seeing the difference between academic and industrial biotechnology research. I was therefore excited to do an internship at a company which uses the same underlying algorithm as my academic research (directed evolution) applied to developing enzymes solving myriad real-world problems. In my internship at Codexis I had the opportunity to work on an independent project expanding a data set for use in machine learning applications. This project enabled me to apply the analytical method development skills I have developed during my PhD while learning about incorporating laboratory automation into research workflows. I also worked as part of a team on a larger protein engineering campaign, on which I contributed to the design and construction of enzyme libraries. Working closely with scientists from a range of disciplines to tackle problems that arose during fast-paced projects and observing my supervisor's management of complex projects gave me the perspective on industrial biotechnology research I was hoping my internship would provide.
My favorite part of the internship was the discussions I had with senior scientists with whom I was working. Many of them have been working in biocatalysis for over a decade and have developed dozens of enzymes used industrially. Hearing their perspectives and working through designing new experiments with them was incredibly insightful and I have worked to bring that insight into designing my experiments in my academic research. I am grateful for the opportunity to explore industrial R&D through my summer at Codexis and only wish that I had done an internship sooner so that I could better apply the industrial mindset to more of the research problems in my PhD.
Contributed by Yu-Li Ni (2019): This summer, I interned with Komodo Health, San Francisco, CA. Komodo Health is a company that mines big health insurance data and sells data products to pharmaceutical companies. As an MD with informatics training, I worked as a clinical expert intern that drives Komodo's research sector with the aim of publishing their first SCI paper.
My project was to estimate cancer incidence and prevalence using Komodo's big data. Through collaboration with the NIH and PIs from Harvard Medical School, I devised several filter sets that clean the very messy real-world data and output numbers that match NIH database closely. With Komodo's big data, we were able to gain numbers to the state level, which could not be achieved by the government data, which only has 22 regional samples across the whole nation.
From this internship I learned a lot in two aspects: Technical wise, I learned how to work with big data using cloud computing services and its interfacing programming language PySpark. Business-wise, I observed how this company grew on their smart business model, and was there when they got their series C funding. This internship the BLP training benefited a lot to my ultimate goal of starting a company after graduation.