More and more institutions are offering internship programs and career guidance services to give students a taste of industry as more and more life science PhD holders find post-graduation employment at for-profit companies. The university is allowing students to spend the bulk of their training at a startup.
The plan received mixed reviews. It is seen as an exciting opportunity by some students. Some worry that students won't get a true graduate school experience and could suffer from limits to their academic freedom.
At a town hall event last month, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) told the campus community that they had signed an agreement with Altos Labs, a Silicon Valley startup focused on the science of cell health, resilience, and rejuvenation. The agreement will allow graduate students from the University of California to work under the supervision of Altos-based scientists.
Two students have signed on so far, both of whom were already working in the labs of scientists moving to Altos.
The plan builds on other career development and support programs available at UCSF, including a program that helps graduate students find internships off campus. It also allows faculty who are moving to Altos to continue to supervise graduate students, which some expressed a desire to do, according to Altos Labs founder and Chief Scientist Rick Klausner.
Students may do first-year lab rotations at Altos and UCSF under the agreement. Those who choose to work under Altos researchers will be almost entirely based at the company for the remainder of their doctorate, although they will retain access to graduate student functions and on-campus support. Each student will be covered by Altos in return for their tuition, fees, and stipend. The company pledged $25 million to the university's graduate programs over the course of five years.
The agreement was signed on March 1st but few at UCSF have seen it.
The program will be overseen by a governance committee and changes will be made as needed. There is no obligation on our part. We are excited to be able to make this an option for the students in the future.
Stephen Floor, an assistant professor in cell and tissue biology at the University of California, San Francisco, hasn't decided if he's in favor of the agreement. Floor is worried that students based at Altos will not be able to interact with peers.
He notes that partnerships between universities and for-profit companies are not uncommon. The agreement is touching a nerve with some in the campus, according to a professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Many in the UCSF community expressed concern that business interests would impede the ability of Altos-based graduate students to communicate their findings to the scientific community and finish their degree within the typical time frame.
Klausner doesn't think that is a problem because of the company's operating model. Klausner says that all of the scientists at Altos have academic freedom policies written into their contract. Before publication, the company will look at a paper to see if there is intellectual property that needs to be protected. The only constraint is on all the scientists at Alto.
There are passages in the 20-page agreement signed by Altos and UCSF that aim to protect the academic freedom of graduate students.
The lack of transparency in the partnership has left many in the campus community frustrated.
Faculty and students aren't usually involved in negotiating agreements around industry partnerships.
Anna Lipkin, a sixth-year neuroscience PhD student at the University of California, San Francisco, has advised first- and second-year students against moving to the company. This is going to be terrible. You are going to be treated badly and it is a small company so far from our campus. She wishes the university had started its partnership with the company along a more well-trod path, such as summer internships for PhD students. There are plenty of ways for graduate students to get industry experience, and this seemed like the most extreme version.
Floor says that a lot of the people's concerns would be minimized if we really knew what was going on. The experiment UCSF is embarking on raises questions about credentials and what it means to do a PhD. Is it possible to get that training in the private sector? Maybe you can.