Astronomy and Biotech Take Off at the University of San Francisco

By Arvin Temkar, Content Writer / Copy Editor, University of San Francisco

Aparna Venkatesan, chair of USF's physics and astronomy department (Photo: University of San Francisco)


Aparna Venkatesan, chair of USF's physics and astronomy department (Photo: University of San Francisco)

Galaxy Quest: Exploring outer space and making science more inclusive for women and minorities

Aparna Venkatesan was the very first woman to graduate from Cornell University’s astronomy department. That was in 1993. Two decades later, women and minorities still face an uphill battle for science-related careers, says Venkatesan, now chair of the University of San Francisco's (USF) physics and astronomy department. 

“There’s this feeling of incredible isolation if you’re a woman or a minority in the hard sciences,” Venkatesan says. “There’s a feeling of not belonging. Even today, sadly, it’s not uncommon at a typical university to see only one woman in a physics class.” 

Venkatesan is fostering a different kind of environment at USF. That’s why one of her priorities is taking time to meet individually with physics and astronomy students — particularly women and minorities — to help them through challenges. By inviting students for lunchtime chats, she creates the kind of mentoring connections that have served her well throughout her career. She’s particularly proud of her relationships with her research students, many of whom go on to pursue advanced degrees in science. 

“In my student days, a few professors or colleagues suggested I wasn’t cut out for this or that I should leave the field,” says Venkatesan. “But I’ve also had these gems along my path — mentors, colleagues, and grant officers who made the time to support and encourage me. I want to do the same for our students who don’t fit the typical mold of the physics or astronomy major.”

It’s a commitment she’s taken on in various roles: She’s a council member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for the Status of Minorities, and she volunteers at San Francisco public schools, presenting on science and astronomy to young students.

“We discuss everything from falling into a black hole, to gravitational lensing, to meeting life forms on other planets,” she says. “These kids are our community treasure and gardens. I love planting the seeds of appreciating science and promoting their view of themselves as potential scientists and observers of the universe.”

Venkatesan came to USF in 2006 with the goal of expanding its astronomy and astrophysics programs. There was only one astronomy class at the time. With the help of other USF professors, she created new minors in astronomy and astrophysics, and developed popular classes like Planetary Astronomy — a class that draws hundreds of students with diverse majors each year.

“Astronomy is always a mega-popular science with a big ‘wow’ factor, especially these days,” she says. “This class' popularity has been helped by the huge amount of data coming in on extra-solar planets, the searches for Earth-like worlds, and the possibility of life elsewhere.”

With support from a National Science Foundation grant, she’ll soon take a handful of students to Puerto Rico, to conduct research on the world’s largest radio telescope. She and her students, along with students from a consortium of 19 other colleges, will conduct a census of nearby galaxies. 

And through it all shines one of USF’s Jesuit values: diversity. 

“I hope that women in science can have a supportive society and environment in which they can each excel and flourish in their own unique way,” Venkatesan says. “And that one day the scientific community will be too busy appreciating each person's science to draw attention to their gender or race.”

The Bay Area is home to some of the nation’s top biotech companies — a major advantage for USF students, who have many opportunities to connect with potential employers (Photo: University of San Francisco)


The Bay Area is home to some of the nation’s top biotech companies — a major advantage for USF students, who have many opportunities to connect with potential employers (Photo: University of San Francisco)

The Business of Biotech: USF’s professional science master’s program offers students the best of two worlds

The University of San Francisco’s (USF) interdisciplinary Professional Science Master’s Program in Biotechnology boasts a nearly 100 percent job placement rate. That’s in part because it blends hard science with business — a combination that’s equipping graduates to work in all aspects of the Bay Area’s booming biotech scene. 

“I'm still impressed by the fact that the program integrates such disparate areas of learning into a single, comprehensive two-year master’s program,” says Casey Keyes ’15, a recent graduate who works as a lab engineer at South San Francisco startup, Distributed Bio.

The two-year program graduated its first cohort in spring 2014. The current cohort includes 22 students. Thanks to the program’s interdisciplinary scope, graduates are now working in areas as varied as business development, discovery research, scientific writing and publishing, and regulatory affairs.

“Being in a startup, you can’t really separate the business from what you’re doing,” says Keyes. “You’re constantly working with clients, large pharma companies, as well as other small companies. The two concepts — business and biology — are married.”

“There’s much more to students’ success than just the science,” says Christina Tzagarakis-Foster, associate dean for the sciences at USF and interim director of the biotech program. “The students need to be exposed to various aspects of the business of biotech, whether it is how venture capital works, or the FDA [U.S. Food & Drug Administration] approval process, or why a company should work with a contract research organization. All of these things are important to understand in order to contribute to the success of a biotech company.”

The Bay Area is home to some of the nation’s top biotech companies — a major advantage for USF students, who have many opportunities to connect with potential employers. Instead of a master’s thesis, professional science master’s in biotechnology students complete internships with companies like Genentech and AmGen.

“We’re at a point where biotech companies are contacting us, wanting to partner with our students — even as early as their first year,” says Tzagarakis-Foster.

J Labs, an innovation sector of Johnson and Johnson, recently set up a “speed dating” internship-matching program for USF students, by inviting companies to connect with students at their research space in South San Francisco. Twelve companies participated, including Distributed Bio. 

All of the program’s students complete an academic global immersion with Professor Moira Gunn, who is also the host of NPR’s Tech Nation. This unique opportunity allows students to travel to countries like Puerto Rico and England and see the biotech industry outside of the Bay Area.

The most valuable aspect of the experience for Keyes, who traveled to Quebec, was the opportunity to visit a range of businesses, from startups to multi-national companies. 

“I learned what the needs and goals of companies are at various stages of growth, and this informed my decision to join a startup rather than a more established biotech company,” she says. “I wanted to start at the early stage — where I can have the most influence and also learn about this industry.”

For more information on the Professional Science Master’s Program in Biotechnology at USF, please click here.