The challenge of preparing biomedical science undergraduates for the changing landscape of science funding and employment 

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In this post, Mathew Brook makes a compelling case for teaching students to translate their research into entrepreneurial project in preparing them for the competitive world of biomedical science. Dr Brook is a Lecturer/Principal Investigator at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science↗️, The University of Edinburgh and Assistant Professor at Zhejiang University/University of Edinburgh (ZJE) Institute↗️, China. This post belongs to Teaching Matters’ Learning & Teaching Enhancement theme: Embedding enterprise in the curriculum↗️.

For the seasoned biomedical science researcher/lecturer who has been through the funding cycle(s) over and over again (successfully and unsuccessfully), who has seen enough funding application forms to know what is asked for, and how that has evolved over recent years, it is a complete ‘no-brainer’ that we should be preparing undergraduate students for the system that many of them will soon encounter.  

We are required to be aware of commercial and/or translational potential of our research outputs (and ideas) and most funding schemes now ask for significant consideration of future enterprise potential long before work has even started on a project. Crucially, it is often a key factor that grant reviewers are asked to consider as a part of their final score/decision. 

Now, this all seems reasonable. We are often talking about large amounts of taxpayers’ or charity money and full consideration of the science and its potential is correct. However, the vast majority of academics have never received any training in assessing enterprise potential, of either their own work or the work of others, and yet we are required to spend increasing amounts of time and effort managing (i.e. protecting) our IP, to evidence the steps taken, and give thought to how it could be exploited for enterprise (commercial or social). Therefore, in my experience, most academics wish they had been taught the basics of enterprise at an early stage in their education, rather than having to try and acquire yet another skillset when their time is already stretched to a breaking point. 

A challenge we have set ourselves on the University of Edinburgh/Zhejiang University (ZJE) Biomedical Science↗️ and Biomedical Informatics↗️ BSc degree programmes, is to best prepare our students for the funding and employment landscape that awaits them as postgraduates and beyond. This is a multi-strand approach that builds on the standard fact-based scientific content and introduces students to the processes of research programme design and grant writing and builds an understanding of research ethics, research integrity, and research culture. All whilst honing their scientific communication skills to enable them to communicate effectively in both scientific and non-scientific environments. 

More recently, we have tried to address the knowledge gap that has created a generation of underprepared academics by working with Edinburgh Innovations (EI)↗️ to embed key content relating to enterprise and entrepreneurship, with a specifically biomedical perspective. However, a significant challenge that emerged was to sufficiently convey the relevance of this content to undergraduate students, who often could not see themselves utilising the knowledge in the foreseeable future and whose engagement was therefore impacted. We have had to quickly evolve the content, its assessment, and how it integrates with the wider programme content, to make it clearer to students WHY we are teaching it to them and how they will benefit in both the short- and longer-term. Of course, this seems obvious in retrospect, but student (and faculty) feedback often bring significantly increased clarity to a situation that did not previously appear to need it. 

So, working closely with EI, for this academic year we reappraised all our enterprise (and related) content and presented it through a highly focused lens of applied biomedical science and preparedness for immediate next career steps and beyond, whilst also highlighting transferable skills acquisition. Engagement has clearly improved, and a number of our students immediately displayed significant entrepreneurial potential. Watch out for them in the not-too-distant future! Of course, we will continue to refine the content and its delivery. It is our role to best prepare our graduates for the increasingly complex and competitive world of biomedical science and I strongly believe that our use of ‘real world’ teaching scenarios and approaches gives them the best chance of success. Nowhere is this truer than in relation to finding a way to embed an understanding of enterprise into a science degree. 

photo of the authorMathew Brook

Dr Mathew Brook is a Lecturer/Principal Investigator at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science, The University of Edinburgh and Assistant Professor at Zhejiang University/University of Edinburgh (ZJE) Institute, China. He is a molecular biologist studying the regulation of gene expression in cardiometabolic health and disease and Year 3/4 coordinator for the Biomedical Science and Biomedical Informatics dual award degree programmes taught at ZJE in China.

One comment

  1. Thanks Matt, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I think you are surfacing a really important complex professional skill set and awareness that our students are going to find really useful, wherever their careers take them. In Reproductive Biology Honours, students have to write a very short and simple ‘Grant Application’, that is submitted early in the student’s capstone project timeline, so they are given the opportunity to gain a deep insight into what they are doing in their project and why. At the same time they are exploring and starting to develop this skill in entrepreneurship. Simon Riley

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