Life-changing science: BioBuilder podcast.
Episode 11: Rebecca Millman
Rebecca has spent decades helping global companies solve critical strategy and marketing problems, including a long tenure at McKinsey & Company. She believes excellence in science education is critical not just to U.S. competitiveness but also to human survival, and that education is an irreplaceable support for populations currently struggling for economic independence and a higher quality of life. Rebecca graduated from Harvard with a Special Concentration in Soviet and American Studies then earned an M.B.A. as a Tuck Scholar at Dartmouth.
-“BioBuilder is a movement not just a curriculum.”
-“This could have an impact and help change the way we prepare young scientists for work in advanced biology.”
-“BioBuilder resonated with all the things I care about: impacting the world and doing good on a broad scale.”
-“The people involved with synthetic biology are the ones who are going to be solving the big problems facing humanity.”
-“We are going to use biological machines and advanced synthetic biology to engineer our way out of climate change. That’s the path forward.”
-“The base of knowledge has expanded exponentially over the past 10 years. If we wait until kids are mid-college level, it’s too late.”
-“BioBuilder provides alternative pathways and access to new realms for a lot of folks who haven’t been reached with this kind of education or career opportunity before.”
Board of Directors, Career, learning, nonprofit, teaching, teachers, MIT Venture Mentoring Service, impact, bioengineering, solving problems, high school, training, future, opportunities, curriculum, lab, workforce, advanced science, synthetic biology
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to life-changing science the BioBuilder, the podcast, I’m your host Zeeshan Siddiqui. And today I’m joined by the chair of the BioBuilder Board, Rebecca Millman. Rebecca has spent decades helping global companies solve critical strategy and marketing problems, including a long tenure at McKinsey and Co. She believes excellence in science education is critical, not just to us competitiveness, but also to human survival. And that education is an irreplaceable support for populations currently struggling for economic independence and a higher quality of life. Rebecca graduated from Harvard with a special concentration in Soviet and American studies then earned an MBA as a Tuck scholar at Dartmouth. In today’s episode, I talked to Rebecca about the strategic goals BioBuilder has for the future and what is being done to meet them. Thank you so much for taking the time during a very busy Thanksgiving week.
Rebecca Millman (00:58):
And thank you for having me. It’s fun to have a chance to talk about BioBuilder.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (01:03):
First question I wanted to ask you was when did you first get involved with BioBuilder? I think it was right at the beginning. And why did you get involved?
Rebecca Millman (01:11):
It was absolutely right at the beginning. I knew Natalie from another context and I knew a little bit about what she did and the curriculum that she had developed. I think when she started to think about really forming a nonprofit and making this into a movement, not just a curriculum, she asked me because my background is in business. I have consulted to both prof for-profit and nonprofit businesses, and she said, am I crazy? And I said, I don’t, I don’t think so. I think this is great. And, and we went we worked with the MIT innovation center as well. And we said, we really think that this could have impact and help form and change the way that science is taught and that we prepare young scientists for work in advanced biology. Even though I look on the surface, if you look at my resume or anything publicly available, I look like a business person with maybe a little bit of liberal arts background. I am a scientist in my heart of hearts. I started college thinking I was going to be a neurobiologist. So it, it just kind of resonated with all the things I care about impacting the world and helping my friend, Natalie, and doing good on a broad scale,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:34):
Coming back to the, preparing a young scientist for work. I think what I’ve seen with BioBuilder that it’s not just preparing them for work in a research environment, but also science is everywhere like government and policy and consulting startups, et cetera. So I’ve given my experience with BioBuilder for the past few months, talking to teachers and students like they’re prepared for all of those different, really, really important careers, especially right now that science is more important than ever.
Rebecca Millman (03:02):
Absolutely. And I guess so, so I had some understanding when we started on this 10 year journey, we’ve been on building BioBuilder. I understood a little bit about the, what I might call the art of the possible using biology to solve real problems, bioengineering, to solve real problems. I know much more about it now, and the more I learn about it, the more I am excited about the opportunity for this, for these students who go on to be part of a, an, an excellent workforce in advanced biology and synthetic biology are really the people who are going to solve some incredibly big problems facing. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not an exaggeration problems facing humanity, right? This is how we are going. We’re going to use biological machines and advanced synthetic biology to engineer our way out of climate change. That’s that’s the path forward.
Rebecca Millman (03:59):
There is no other path forward. It gets more and more exciting. And we see we’ve had the joy over the last 10 years of seeing our early cohorts of students and teachers and those teachers, students go through kind of the whole arc. So they come to the BioBuilder programs, they have that spark, they get really excited about doing hands-on science solving problems with science. They go on to do an internship, or they go on to go to college in this and do research, and then they get published. And we see in a peer review journal, something that they’re doing that is solving a water cleaning problem or a something in the real world. And so now that we’re a decade out from the founding, we’re seeing the fruition of that, and it is literally a joy to see that happen. It’s unbelievable.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:57):
Yeah. The publication part is,, that was BioTreks, right? I’ve seen a few publications in BioTreks, and I think it’s just at a high school level, having that exposure is incredible. It blows my mind sometimes that kids in year seven year nine, year 10, like I didn’t learn some of the things they are learning now in synthetic biology. I didn’t learn until the second or third year of undergrad.
Rebecca Millman (05:16):
And as the base of knowledge expands, I don’t want to make a guess as to how old you are, but the base of knowledge at the beginning of this field was very small. Right. But the base of knowledge has expanded exponentially over the last 10 or 15 years. And so if we’re waiting now until kids are mid college level, or doing research at a higher education level, it’s too late. Right. So that’s why, in fact, when we first started, so Natalie developed the curriculum and the approach that BioBuilder uses in a collegiate environment, we drove it back into high school, Natalie being the genius that she is thought, we have to start kids earlier. We can drive this back into high school curriculum. Now we’re actually driving it back almost to a middle school curriculum. Right. And we have to, right? And that’s what I get excited about.
Rebecca Millman (06:04):
So, so one of the things that I love about what we’re doing is that you can look at it from some different angles. It’s really, it really fulfills needs on a bunch of fronts. So while we’re training scientists and, and scientifically oriented technicians who understand the lab work itself, all that, all that great stuff that can go into industry and have impact or a startup and have impact or academia and have impact and academia and startups and corporations are really excited about that. I’m really excited about is a different facet, which is that there are really interesting and exciting career paths for people coming out of even just high school. A well-trained high school grad, who’s been through our curriculum and has lab techniques can get work coming out of that. And that’s an opportunity. It’s a, it’s a new work pathway. It could be through community college, not requiring a four year degree that opens up science and work opportunities for populations in the U S or anywhere else in the world who might not have thought about that as the path in the past. And that’s where I get really jazzed up about the workforce development stuff, because it provides alternative pathways and access to new realms for a lot of folks who haven’t been reached with this kind of education or career opportunity before
Zeeshan Siddiqui (07:28):
Biobuilder has so many amazing initiatives. There’s the Club, the Idea Accelerator, Professional Development workshops, et cetera. Like how do you start to develop strategic goals for the future that sort of encompass all of these initiatives,
Rebecca Millman (07:41):
I’m going to start, before I look forward, I’m going to look back just for a second. I think one of the things we did in the first decade was to really hone what’s the program. And when I say program, I don’t mean one specific thing like the Club or this, or, I mean, what’s the programmatic approach to doing this that works. And is it training teachers in an environment and letting them spread it? Is it training students directly in a lab, et cetera, et cetera. We did a whole bunch of experimentation over 10 years. When we started, it was really more about training teachers. Then we added the lab, we started trading both teachers and industry and students directly. We developed the Apprenticeship program and the Club. And now we really, we overtime, we have honed a model that we think is the model that works.
Rebecca Millman (08:29):
And it’s a comprehensive model programmatic model, where you start the curriculum in a school district, in an area, you start the Clubs in that area. And you sort of have cohorts who go through all of the programming and you develop your teacher-base there at the same time that you’re talking to the region about what the bio economy can bring to the region so that you have buy-in from not just education, but from business, local business, from government, from local higher education institutions, like community colleges with certificate programs or, or four year colleges who see a continuum of education and development coming out of the BioBuilder programs that are in the high school. That is the model that we know. We spent 10 years figuring out that it really works. We would love to replicate that everywhere, right? The goal, I think for us now, to pivot and actually answer your question, is going forward.
Rebecca Millman (09:37):
So we have the model that works. Now we need to get it to scale. Meaning we feel like we’ve solved the problem of the, how. Now we have to go and get just a lot of it going. And for us, that’s about how do we find these folks who are excited and interested in new geographies to take this on? How do we, it wouldn’t be realistic to talk about this without talking about how do we fund it? There’s an initial bump of effort to get the people lined up, the — literally — the place like, meaning the lab space, getting the hands on the right teachers to teach locally. All of that stuff takes some effort. And it also takes a little bit of capital, right? So for us, we’re really looking at literally a wide world of places where this could take hold and there’s a ton of interest, and we’re trying to prioritize those and come up with what are the next three to five geographies where we really go after driving this curriculum in this model, like we have done in, in,uin the south, in the U S very successfully. So, so that’s that, to me, that’s what it’s about.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (10:45):
So that the new LabCentral is that’s the Gingko Bioworks, and
Rebecca Millman (10:49):
Ginkgo Bioworks. Yeah. The LabCentral location, and also Ginkgo Bioworks which is fantastic. Yeah. We couldn’t be more enthusiastic about being there in the space. We find that when we, with our LabCentral lab and also with the new one at Gingko Bioworks, one of the things that is great about having a physical lab space, which we did not have at the way back at the beginning, but our own sort of dedicated lab space, especially embedded in a place where there are industry folks doing real work next door, is that there’s this nice, you know, you can have conversation over coffee, run into somebody in the hallway, you can talk to them. And even our students and the teachers we’re training that come in, have that exposure to that environment as they come in. So, so yeah, we’re super excited about those. We’re, we’re talking about some other locations around the U S as well, potentially, but that’s a big part of what helps the program take, hold in a region or a, or an area.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:47):
What else can you tell us about a few more strategic goals that you’re working on right now for the next year or so?
Rebecca Millman (11:54):
Not necessarily in a year, that will be very
Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:57):
The next few years.
Rebecca Millman (11:59):
I would see the mid run, midterm. So the very heart of where we started, I referred to before it was the curriculum, really this idea of the BioBuilder curriculum, that the it’s real-world science, it’s problems that are being solved today. It’s not like, forgive me for anybody who had this genetics class, but, you know, like counting little flies, the eyeball color, that’s not science that is cutting edge or it’s a problem that’s been solved a million times and you’re sort of rotely running through that. Right? So one of the things that was so remarkable about Natalie’s curriculum is she pulled from scientific problems that were, are being solved in real time. And to focus a lab experience for students around doing science around that, where we might not actually know the answer, right? Like that’s incredibly exciting and cool so-so the curriculum is at the heart of it, even though now we have also the programming that curriculum is still the heart of it.
Rebecca Millman (12:54):
That approach to learning is still the heart of it that we see sparking student interest. So I’ve taken a long walk around to answer your question, but one of the goals is: can we actually drive that curriculum across the United States into all secondary education? Isn’t that a great goal? I don’t think we’re going to get there in a year just to be clear, but in, in three to five years, I think we could be there. And that’s really what we’ve set out. As one of our core core strategic pillars is how do we help drive that curriculum that kind of problem-based learning in advanced sciences into every high school in the country.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (13:29):
That that’s getting me excited again. I’ll rejoin high school
Rebecca Millman (13:34):
You can help us drive it into the high schools.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (13:36):
Let’s do it. And I think a big part of driving it into so many different schools is I think a lot of schools have now adopted online education and Zoom, and Microsoft teams. I think the infrastructure is there for it. I think that for a lot of educational companies to develop a strategy, to convert a physical curriculum that you have in the lab space and convert that online. I think that would be an, a major challenge 2020 and 2021. And I think that would be a big part possibly of the strategy going into the three to five years.
Rebecca Millman (14:05):
It’s tough. I think it’s tough. If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said it it’s really tough and possibly an unsolvable barrier to drive our curriculum into a digital space, because so much of it is about the actual lab experience. I have to, like, I have to bite my tongue and pay down the bet, because I’m wrong. I’m just wrong because when COVID hit and BioBuilder had to pivot and say, how are we going to do this? When we cannot be like, there was no choice we had to figure out how do you do it, not in a physical lab space together. And, and Natalie and the team did an amazing job of converting that experience into a digital experience. And we delivered it over the course of COVID in a digital space. So now I would say we’re like, we actually can deliver it in a real space, in a lab, or in a digital space.
Rebecca Millman (15:01):
And clearly there’s always room to get better, but we were worried. I was worried, I won’t speak for Natalie, but I was worried that there would be much more degradation of the experience, but we’re bringing it into digital space. But she just did an amazing job of bringing it in into digital. So absolutely that can be part of it. I think at the, at the heart of what we’d love to do is have it really be in a lab space. We, you know, one of the things we did in, in our Southern kind of hub, where we were working on that model we talked about where there are cohorts going through the high school and they go to a job experience and there’s a whole consortium of business and government and education and, and higher ed involved. One of the things that we should highlight there is that it’s not a big urban center, right?
Rebecca Millman (15:41):
So it’s, it’s an interesting question for us. Like what is the solution set that works if you’re not in New York or not in Chicago or not in Boston, where it’s easy to put up a physical lab space. Now the solution that happened down south was that they got funding to build a good lab space and that’s one solution, but we’ve really talked about quite a lot of different kinds of labs solutions that would help us bring it again across the U S – rural, wealthy, not wealthy. Like we have to talk about that too, school systems, right? Things like a lab bus, a mobile lab that can come to somewhere to do it. Right? So these are all the things that we’d really like to be getting going. We’re not a hundred percent sure of the exact model. Again, we need some capital for that too.
Rebecca Millman (16:26):
But as we start to, we’re really aware of the fact that as we start, even though the curriculum is at the core, as we pull it across to different regions and different school systems and right down to different specific schools, they’re going to be different issues to solve for. And we’re, we’re trying to think as creatively, as possible about solving for them and looking for partners in solving them as well. Because you know where I say, we, I can’t say we, Natalie and her team, very small team, accomplishing a ton. So how do we expand and help drive that or facilitate others to drive it, right. If there’s a, if there’s a group that has a lab bus, and there are some of those, how do we partner with them so that the BioBuilder curriculum can be there, but you’re right. To bring it up as a question, it’s quite a challenge to think about that. What do they call them? “Beehags” Big, hairy something goals, right? That BEHAG of having it in every high school in the United States is also a big challenge.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (17:24):
Thanks once again, to Rebecca for joining me today, a particular topic of conversation I found really insightful was hearing about BioBuilder’s tried and tested model over the past 10 years, where you start a curriculum in a school district and an area, you then start the Clubs in that area. Then you have cohorts that go through all the programming and you develop your teacher base there. But at the same time, you’re talking to the region about what the bio-economy can bring to them. And this is how you get everyone involved, local governments and local businesses, local higher educational institutes, and hearing about this model and BioBuilder’s goals was really inspirational and insightful. I believe this episode will be of great interest to everyone involved with BioBuilder at all levels, as well as higher educational institutions, stakeholders, governments, interested in learning more about the strategy that BioBuilder applied to become so successful over the past decade and realizing how critical BioBuilder is in terms of building and scaling up the future of biotech education. Not only in the states, but worldwide, if you would like to learn more about anything, Rebecca and I discussed today, please refer to the show notes on me for the next BioBuilder podcast when I welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilder’s life-changing science. See you next time.