Speak so the industry listens: PME’s science communication course preps students and postdocs for the private sector

For newly minted engineers, the shift from academia to private industry, with its talk of market viability, profit margins, and supply chains, can feel daunting. That’s why the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering launched its Communications Program for Industry, a new course that trains PhD students and postdoctoral researchers to communicate effectively within the private sector.

The program, launched this year, helps students and postdocs develop nimble and engaging strategies for communicating their work to industry representatives, an essential skill for any scientists working in the private sector.

PME fourth-year PhD student Fabian Byléhn knew he wanted to work in industry after spending two years helping address the coronavirus pandemic. Byléhn specializes in molecular simulations. Under the guidance of his advisor, Prof. Juan de Pablo, Byléhn helped discover several possible molecular interventions against the virus.

“When I was working on COVID projects, I got a taste of what industry would be like—working on a small team at a really fast pace, and I enjoyed it,” Byléhn said. “I also realized how critical communication is. For example, if I’m doing drug design, I need to effectively convey what I’ve done to experimentalists and technicians and also people in finance, all of whom have a different perspective.”

Fabian Byléhn
PhD student Fabian Byléhn

Briana Konnick, PME’s director of career development and the course’s co-instructor, said the motivation behind the course’s creation came from students, but also industry partners.

“We regularly hear from our alumni and employer partners that communication is one of the most crucial skills for scientists entering the private sector,” Konnick said. “PME has a robust science communication program, which emphasizes skill building towards communication of science with a wide variety of audiences, including the public. With the Communications for Industry course, we focused on offering something tailored specifically for industrial audiences and grounded in real-world scenarios for succeeding in industry and business—working in cross-functional teams, interviewing for industrial careers, networking with those in the business world, and pitching investors.”

To deliver that versatility, Konnick and the other instructors—Assistant Dean of Education and Outreach Laura Rico-Beck, and Director of Corporate Engagement Felix Lu—recruit directly from the field. For the inaugural section, they organized an introductory panel of PME alumni working for companies such as Astra Zeneca, Blue Origin, Oliver Wyman, and Sight Machine.

Throughout the course, students and postdocs learn how to explain their work to different industry audiences, focusing on what they value, and how storytelling and distillation can make a more persuasive pitch. To help with this, course participants work one-on-one with industry mentors. The inaugural class partnered with mentors from Hacha Products, Insight, Sonoco Products Company, PPG, and UL.

The course culminates with a live pitch session in front of industry judges: participants get three minutes apiece, no notes, no slides.

Rachel Wallace
PhD student Rachel Wallace

For Rachel Wallace, a fifth-year PhD student, the industry communications course is about getting her research to those who need it most: patients with auto-immune diseases. Wallace studies immunoengineering at PME and investigates how to retrain the immune system using glycopolymers, which help the cells interact and accept new drugs. If successful, her work could help treat conditions such as celiac disease or rheumatoid arthritis, which for her, is personal.

“I’ve watched several people close to me struggle with autoimmune disease, so it’s always been important that my research be used to help treat patients,” Wallace said. “I want to work in industry to make sure that happens. And with so many people involved in that process—from regulation to manufacturing to finance—it’s critical to be able to communicate the scientific value effectively.”

Wallace, who graduates later this year, has her sights set on venture capital firms investing in biotech. She’ll be joining Northpond Ventures as an intern this summer.

Grayson Jackson, a postdoctoral researcher focusing on shear thickening liquids (think corn starch in water), enrolled in the course to help with his job search. For him, the experience was about fine-tuning his research pitch and getting perspective on what employers value.

Grayson Jackson
Postdoctoral researcher Grayson Jackson

“One of the biggest lessons I took from the course was just how focused industry drivers are on market viability,” Jackson said. “That knowledge helped me reconfigure my approach to talk more about my work’s potential applications rather than the science behind it. It was also helpful to have experience in front of real industry representatives.”

Since taking the course, Jackson has accepted an R&D scientist position at Flexsys.

The Communications Program for Industry’s inaugural session concluded in April, with Rachel Wallace taking first place in the pitch competition. The program’s next section will begin enrollment in the 2022-2023 academic year.

Find out more about this course and other engineering and science-focused communications programs on the PME website.