JMU’s division of the Virginia Biotechnology Association, VaBio, has been an organization for students interested in the bioscience and technology fields for the past 10 years. VaBio is part of an association located in Richmond made up of over 200 Virginia-based biotechnology-affiliated companies.
VaBio at JMU gives students confidence for their future career opportunities through networking, lab visits and guest speakers. Ultimately, VaBio at JMU wants students to take these experiences and inspire them to pursue an interest in the biotechnology field.
The club travels to networking events in Virginia, schedules biotech lab tours with mini demonstrations and brings in guest speakers for seminars. Its community provides connections with employees from Virginia-based biotech companies and shows students potential employment options. Eric South, a senior biotechnology major and president of VaBio at JMU, has been involved with the club since his sophomore year.
“We’re giving undergraduates who are interested in this professional path an idea of what they’re getting themselves into,” South said. “And kind of with the culture of science, once you graduate and leave the JMU bubble, just having the experience is nice.”
The organization’s main goal is to give students an environment to explore career options in biotechnology and other STEM-related fields. They meet once a week to work on networking skills and learn more about biotech careers through event opportunities and speakers.
“It gives us an opportunity to understand more about industries and about our options after we graduate,” Casey Noll, a senior biotechnology major, said. “It helps us make that initial connection, and there’s at least one place we’ve visited that I’m going to apply to, so it’s nice that I actually met the people there and understood what it would be like to work there.”
VaBio at JMU also brings in a variety of guest speakers to talk to students about both the business and science sides of biotechnology careers. Students can experience different jobs in the industry firsthand by visiting biotech labs and companies throughout Virginia.
“These connections are a great way to market our skills to potential employers in the biotechnology industry,” said Kyle Sperber, a junior biotechnology and political science double major and vice president of VaBio at JMU.
Through the connections students build, they are able to find career direction and get a chance to showcase what they learned at each event.
“I know it’s kind of scary not knowing what you’re going to do after graduating, but having already seen the companies and met people who are successful in biotech careers has given me a lot more confidence about the future,” Noll said. “When I first joined sophomore year, I absolutely had no idea what I wanted to do.”
Sperber entered the club as a freshman and ended up shifting his career plans because of it. He was encouraged to run for vice president the same year, and is now serving his third year in the role. His involvement helped him make the switch from one aspect of STEM to another.
“I actually joined as a biology major, and enjoyed the field of biotechnology enough to change my major my sophomore year,” Sperber said.
VaBio gives students the opportunity to network and provides various avenues for life after graduation. Giving students exposure to build their confidence to pursue biotech careers is the organization’s most important mission. Each year, VaBio holds different networking events in Richmond and Charlottesville, where students from campuses across Virginia can learn from experienced leaders in the biotechnology field.
“I sort of felt like a fish in a big ocean,” South said. “I was just an undergraduate hearing people who had 20-plus years of experience talking, but I just walked up and asked to learn what they were talking about. They were so welcoming, and I got to talk to so many unexpected people and just listened to them talk about their lives.”
As one of many events that VaBio puts on, Biotech and Beer allows students to network and discuss biotechnology issues in a casual environment. Students mingle with people who work in the biotech industry, eat food and drink beer while doing so. It’s designed to be an outlet for students to ask questions about future careers.
One of the highlights of South’s time in VaBio came from a trip to HemoShear Therapeutics last year. South says the trip inspired him to become more involved with the organization.
“Having that direct contact with other people who have been in your shoes and are a couple years ahead, you realize that you’re just like these guys,” South said. “You come from the same place they came from, have the same interests and it gives you cool connections. It’s kind of given me confidence and shown me that you can pursue what you want to do if you just get close to it.”
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