Episode 9: Supporting the next generation of STEM professionals

Science talks - Dr. Uwe Hilgert
Dr. Uwe Hilgert shares his work to further BIO5's mission to support and educate the next generation workforce.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Not all career paths are linear, and most budding professionals need support along the way. Dr. Uwe Hilgert, associate research professor and director of Industry Relations, Workforce Development and STEM Training at the BIO5 Institute, discusses his career journey from the lab bench to working in education and outreach. He also talks about his essential roles in two Discover BIO5 events and making the transition to a virtual Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) summer research internship program.

BU: You hold graduate degrees in biology, microbiology, and botany, but you've since transitioned your career away from the lab bench. I know many graduate students, including myself last year, are interested in pursuing careers in things like outreach, communication and policy. At what point did you decide to make the switch from being a traditional bench scientist to educating and training the next generation?

I always had a knack for making science relevant for bridging the gap between those of us who followed their passion for science, working the lab and on the forefront of knowledge, with those who were interested in hearing about science but did not become scientists themselves. I also always had an interest in communication, so I studied how plants and microorganisms communicate with each other. 

After my Ph.D., I received funding to join the University of Arizona to examine how fungi can overcome plants’ defense reactions and make them sick. I was asked by my neighbors to speak to a fifth-grade class in the West University neighborhood in Tucson. Well, that visit was fun. I proposed to the teacher to work with her class during the entire fall semester. She agreed, and we built a mutually beneficial relationship whereby I took her and her students on discoveries relating to biology, microbiology, plants, food, and cooking. 

As a researcher at the university, I was being paid for scouting a path into the unknown for generating new knowledge. In turn, I learned that I very much enjoyed working with the students, their parents, and the teacher. More importantly though, I learned that scientists and other professionals can bring a lot of good to pre-college education in the public. That's when I decided to change my career and bring my passion for science in curriculum creation. 

The next few years were fascinating. At first, I remained at the university teaching students who prepared to become agricultural education teachers. I also served as the academic advisor for some 450 microbiology students and veterinary science students at the University of Arizona. Five years later, I followed a different call and joined the DNA Learning Center of another famous laboratory on the East Coast here in the United States, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, just outside of New York City. Then I developed lessons and trained teachers and college educators to enrich their entire biology teaching with bioinformatics. I also served as the Assistant Dean of the lab’s graduate school, the Watson School of Biological Sciences. 

I was in New York for 11 years before I came back to Tucson to join the BIO5 Institute as director in what was called Education, Outreach and Training (EOT), continuing to bridge the gap between research and the public. 

BM: EOT has since evolved into Public Affairs, but part of that EOT work that you started and have continued is the Student Industry Networking Event (SINE). This event connects students in the STEM fields with numerous bioscience organizations across the state. Where did the conception come for you for this event, and why do you continue to pour yourself into it?

During their time at the university, our students acquire the skills and habits to become future researchers. I'm proud of being part of that group of instructors to help for that to happen. But what we as faculty are not always doing the best job in is preparing our students with skills for becoming productive future employees outside of the university, as after all, not everyone is interested in becoming a university professor or a university researcher. We therefore teamed up with the BioIndustry Organization of Southern Arizona (BIOSA) and created an opportunity for students to meet people from industry and talk to them what it is about to work in industry - to pursue a career in industry. 

That event, SINE, is where undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows meet with people that work in the biomedical and biotechnology industry. The unique feature of SINE is that it is different from a regular job fair in that the companies do not send human resources staff, but they're researchers. In other words, people who have the same education, the same training, similar views and aspirations, like in finding a cure for a disease, or wanting to contribute to solving some of humanity's challenges such as overpopulation, food insecurity, water scarcity, or pain and suffering. The students meet people that have very similar interests to their own and get to ask them, “How did you get to be where you are right now?”

That interaction between students and the company representatives allows for the students to just ask questions about what it takes to go into industry, what classes they were missing, what education they were missing when they finally started their first job, and what did they actually miss by becoming great laboratory researchers, in addition to other things like teamworking skills and creativity that they could also prepare for in school. When I recruit a company, I tell them it doesn't matter whether you have an opening that you recruit for, please come and just be an advisor to our students and listen to what today's students care about, what their questions are and what is important to them because they will be our employees come a few years down the road.

BU: More recently you've started the Faculty Industry Networking Event (FINE). Tell us a bit more about your goal for this event, and how FINE supports the innovative and collaborative research at the BIO5 Institute.

Having learned from our students how much they value this interaction with company representatives in SINE, we wondered whether we could offer a similar connection to our research scientists. Most scientists actually wish for their science to matter. They take pride in solving problems that affect real people and not just be in an ivory tower into their research behind closed doors. We therefore got together again with BIOSA and put together an annual Faculty Industry Networking Event. 

In the two times that we ran this so far in the last two years, we had about 50 faculty and industry representatives gather to learn from each other and build relationships and communicate. Researchers learn what projects our regional biotech industry work on and what kind of problems they need help with. In turn, industry representatives get to know our researchers and what types of specialized knowledge and expertise they might be able to fall back on here in the University of Arizona, specifically in the BIO5 membership that's now close to 300 researchers, that they can actually fall back on to did help find help in their endeavors to develop new products and services such as diagnostics, medication, treatments for diseases, water treatment, environmental problems - the whole gamut. 

We also invite representatives from the university and regional ecosystem that support the commercialization and broader impact of research and discoveries - our Tech Launch Arizona, the Arizona Tech Parks, the university contracts office – because with any interaction between university researchers and companies, there need to be clearly laid down rules on who does what to write the report, pay the fees, and things like that. 

BM: In this past year, you were an instrumental part of moving the KEYS high school internship program online and transitioning that focus from training students in the lab and allowing them to apply biotech bench techniques to computational research data science. Tell us a little bit about that. What's the difference for you between a traditional offering of KEYS and how you moved our educational platform to a computational offering?

Data science is a whole new discipline. Bioinformatics a few years ago was not well-defined - computer folks thought totally different about it than biological researchers, and funding agencies have their own image of what this might be with data science. I always grab on to that term data science which combines in itself observations, recordings, measurements, as entries into spreadsheets, into notebooks, into databases, if you will. 

While traditional scientists attempt to study and understand the nature and the interactions of things, data scientists have set out to understand the nature and interrelations of data. Given the amount and complexity of the data we generate in traditional sciences today, data science is an immensely important inter- and transdisciplinary. Across disciplines, over disciplines and under disciplines, it's a field that uses scientific methods and processes to extract knowledge from data across. For example, a budding data scientist who has received her education on solving issues in genomics or in astronomy or in social sciences or in physics, their training will allow them to provide invaluable contributions to any scientific discipline. They will also become highly sought after in the future and already now in academia. 

As I said before, we really cannot address the grand challenges humanity faces by looking at them from single disciplinary perspectives. We have to start working across all those disciplines, integrating them into a major endeavor of humanity to find new knowledge and work together to develop some solutions. Data science is a foundational discipline in that whole human endeavor. That's why the BIO5 Institute has also laid a big emphasis on integrating data science in any of the work that it does.

BU: As a former bench scientist, thinking about data science was very intimidating to me. When designing the curriculum for KEYS and where to start with these high school students, what are some of the basic data science techniques or skills that you wanted them to learn to get their feet wet?

The KEYS abbreviation - Keep Engaging Youth in Science - means to me that the students that come to KEYS are not perceived like blank slates. They are passionate about science. They have participated in science and engineering fairs in the region or elsewhere. They come to the program already engaged and excited. We keep them engaged and then we help them build their platform to move on into the field of science. Many come back as undergraduates or move to other fantastic institutions to pursue their education, and eventually move on into greater job opportunities. 

It is exciting to me to participating in teaching future scientists with the mindset and the tools they will be needing in their professional careers - and that's not only the bench work anymore. Now with those huge amounts of data that we generate and with the endeavor to actually integrate findings from different disciplines, we need more and more to extract the actual information from all these data using automated means.

This goes outside of Excel - they have to be prepared to build their own computational tools as researchers. It's important for them to learn at least some of these aspects of what it takes to develop these tools that if they don't want to embark on developing themselves, that they know how to talk with the data scientists in terms of what they will be asking for. When we do this during KEYS, our students, whatever sciences they are engaging in case, become literate in working with digital technology to generate, analyze, and interpret the data, which will be paramount to their success. 

It's interesting regarding the pandemic that we all experienced last year and are still experiencing - it really gave us an opportunity to hit the brakes. Instead of letting all the students go off in their genomics laboratory or their plant science laboratory or working with psychological researchers or wherever it might be in their little cubicles and conduct the research hands-on with instruments, we asked how we could still make this happen with everyone at home. How could we adapt these experiences? That’s where the leaders of KEYS, especially Kelle Hyland and Brooke Moreno, said this must work. And that’s when they asked me to help make it work.