Phylis Hetie is a postdoctoral research fellow in Dr. Lee Rubin’s lab in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University. This past summer she attended The Business of Regenerative Medicine Conference, “How to Build a Company,” a 2.5 day Harvard Stem Cell Institute event hosted at the Harvard Business School.
by Irina Cashen
Matrix: Tell us a little bit about why you went to the BRM conference.
Phylis: Well, at the 2016 HSCI annual retreat there was a raffle for 3 free spots open to postdocs interested in attending the BRM Conference. I put my name in and was very surprised when I found out at the end of the day that I had won!
Matrix: Lucky you! So, what did you get most out of going to the event?
Phyllis: It was a great experience. As scientists, we’re mostly trained in the lab to do bench work, read research articles, and attend conferences. But it all revolves around data collection, and we don’t think about other aspects of our research. I’ve always been interested in creating a physical end product from stem cells, which could actually help people, in a tangible way.
This event helped me to see all the other aspects of research, starting with an idea and ending with a product, which I never would have learned just in the lab. For example, one of the speakers was a Dr. Harald Ott, whose startup company’s model is to use decellularization techniques to create kidney scaffolds that are then use to regenerate new kidneys. The resulting organs are able to produce a clear filtrate – which a kidney should be able to do. This process could then be replicated for other organs as well. So he was a presenter who was at the beginning of the journey, and then there were others who were farther along with their companies. I got to hear all the challenges that the different entrepreneurs had encountered, from the beginning on through to the middle and most advanced stage of their companies’ development.
In the end, one needs to have a great idea first and then funding, and importantly one needs to deal with intellectual property issues and so forth. It was also great to see the Mayor of Boston there as one of the speakers and supporters of scientific research!
Matrix: Well it sounds like you learned a lot in a few days! Do you think this is a type of experience that more postdocs should participate in?
Phylis: Yes, I do! A half-day or one-day training would even be great, and will really help scientists to look at their research and science differently. If it could be subsidized to make it possible for more postdocs to go that would be wonderful! I am really grateful I had the opportunity to attend this conference. I want to contribute not only to scientific knowledge but also to help the entire African continent as well scientifically, and be able to share everything I’ve learned in the U.S. with the African youth. I’m originally from Burkina Faso in West Africa. I grew up and went to high school there. I came to the U.S. and did my undergrad in Biology at Alabama University in Huntsville, (where I also enjoyed playing on my college volleyball team!) and then did my graduate degree at John Hopkins University in Maryland. I started as a postdoc here in February 2014, and I really love working with my colleagues.
Matrix: What do you work on in Dr. Rubin’s lab?
Phylis: We work a lot on drug screening as it relates to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s, and more. I work on SMA, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which is a genetic disease. My research consists of identifying drugs that could treat SMA and understanding how those drugs are able to do so. We all know people who have had needs for treatments that modern medicine could not help them with, and that is always a motivation for scientists to keep pushing forward for new breakthroughs. I’ve seen medical cases growing up in Africa that could have been easily solved had certain knowledge been available. I believe stem cells have the potential to help so many different people in so many different ways – in the end I just want to help people.