Students in The Business of Biology put away their laptops, sat up straighter and listened attentively as University President Mary Sue Coleman acted as the professor for the day.
Coleman gave an hour-long lecture to the class in the Michigan Room of the Michigan League yesterday and spoke about her career as a researcher and the difficulties research universities face.
Coleman began the lecture by describing her experience as a researcher. She received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Grinnell College in Iowa and her doctorate in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina. For 19 years, Coleman was a member of the biochemistry faculty at the University of Kentucky.
The environment of academia has changed to better foster innovation and guard individual rights to intellectual property since Coleman received her Ph.D. in 1969, she said. The biggest change, Coleman said, has been the emphasis on entrepreneurship in the last five years.
“I do think that (the University) is in many ways at the forefront with many institutions of putting incentives in place, creating opportunities, doing things that are really going to spur this kind of activity,” Coleman said.
Elizabeth Barry, managing director of the Life Sciences Institute, said she and David Canter, executive director of the North Campus Research Complex, thought of Coleman as a guest lecturer while planning the course, which is cross-listed in the Medical School, College of Engineering, Ross School of Business and Ford School of Public Policy. Coleman’s oratory skills and her background in science made her an obvious choice, Barry said.
“We were trying to think of who was someone who really was at the intersection of a lot of the kinds of themes we talked about in this class,” Barry said.
Coleman currently serves as co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship and is a member of the board for the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson.
In her lecture, Coleman said being on the board of Johnson & Johnson has been an “interesting experience.” She said she has learned about the difficulties companies face from the Food and Drug Administration and health care reform, among other challenges.
“Groups get in the way,” Coleman said. “Everybody’s trying to do the right thing.”
Coleman said her experience gives her a unique license to speak at cross-disciplinary lectures like this one, but noted that science moves at a pace that is difficult to keep up with.
“I’d have to go back to grad school to be a scientist today,” Coleman said.
Engineering graduate student Zubair Ahsan asked Coleman how the University is bringing research into industry. Coleman answered that it is hard to predict what lines of research will be viable in industry.
“Some of the biggest discoveries that have ever been made came completely serendipitously,” Coleman said.
However, Coleman said the University uses Tech Transfer — an office that helps put technology developed at the University on the market — to accelerate business endeavors and protect the intellectual property of students and faculty. In fiscal year 2011, an all-time high of 101 technologies that went through Tech Transfer were licensed and optioned, according to a press release issued yesterday.
“We have a support system within the University that is a lot more robust even than it was five years ago,” Coleman said.
Coleman said she understands the challenges faculty and students face when trying to find funding for and continue their research at the University.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, you’re depressed because your experiment didn’t work out like you think it should, and so it’s failure, failure, failure,” Coleman said, adding that the other five percent of the time gives researchers the motivation to move forward.
In an interview after the lecture, Ahsan said he was satisfied with Coleman’s responses and is looking forward to hearing more specifics in her State of the University address tomorrow. He added that multi-disciplinary courses like The Business of Biology are valuable because they allow students to hear from influential people like Coleman each week.
“(Barry and Canter) have done a good job in selecting the speakers with the appropriate backgrounds that hit every aspect of the business of biology,” Ahsan said. “Whether it be regulatory, entrepreneurial, university, etc.”