Where Business Meets Science: Q&A with Biotechnology Track Director Nikki Hastings (BME ’09)

The essence of both biotechnology and commerce carries the potential for positive societal transformation. With the new Biotechnology Track being offered in McIntire’s M.S. in Commerce, students with life science backgrounds will gain business skills and emerge ready to excel in areas where the two fields convene. The new area of focus at the McIntire School is the result of a generous $5 million gift from The Chris and Carrie Shumway Foundation and a $3.5 million match from the University’s Strategic Investment Fund to fund faculty teaching in programs at the intersection of business and bioscience.

Biotechnology Track Director Nikki Hastings discovered the importance of being fluent in both areas firsthand. A graduate of the University’s Biomedical Engineering PhD program, her experiences immediately after the completion of her studies proved critical.

“I was taught the business side of building biotech companies through incredible mentors from the business world while working at HemoShear Therapeutics,” she says, recalling how she recognized her lack of business knowledge and found herself fortunate to be in an environment where she could learn. She credits the mentorship she received and the spirit of entrepreneurship that defined the Charlottesville-based drug development startup with helping her to find her passions—right at the intersection of business and science.

That interest drove her toward other experiences leading and supporting Central Virginia’s biotech industry. Hastings says that lessons from her time in executive roles with early-stage companies and, more recently, co-founding and leading the nonprofit CvilleBioHub have informed her aspirations for the 18-credit M.S. in Commerce biotech track.

“There is an extraordinarily strong and supportive community working on biotechnology and medical innovations in and around the Charlottesville area, fostered through Charlottesville BioHub. Being connected to the leaders and founders of many of these companies presents an opportunity to build bridges across the University and into the community,” she says. “I envision exposing students in the biotech track to these amazing leaders, our local community, and beyond, into other biotech ecosystems. Such connections will help students to learn, explore employment opportunities, and chart meaningful careers after their time in the M.S. in Commerce Program.”

We recently spoke with Hastings about how plans for this inventive, cross-curricular specialized course of study will offer students indispensable knowledge and learning experiences while facilitating valuable industry and alumni engagement.

What do you bring to the position of Track Director, and how do you believe students will benefit from your professional experiences?

Directing the M.S. in Commerce Biotechnology Track is such an honor. I’m thrilled to be working across Grounds with my graduate school home in the Department of Biomedical Engineering to collaboratively create a unique offering for life sciences and pre-med majors as they consider their next steps. I hope to impart my own enthusiasm for the biotech industry and private sector work, while collaborating with McIntire leadership to engage alumni and industry leaders to put a spotlight on the fulfilling careers that students might explore. Developing and deepening skills in scientific research and interpretation and harnessing them with new and expanded knowledge in business can help us to fill major workforce gaps within this growing industry.

How do you envision the track making the most of both University resources and Charlottesville’s place in the biotech startup industry?

There are unique opportunities to connect with successful UVA alumni and area leaders in the industry that can be accomplished through an engaging seminar series. Seeing model leadership and hearing directly from those who are doing it can inspire students and guide them towards their areas of deeper interest, and help them make career choices that impact and tackle global human health issues. We’re also very excited about designing immersive experiences that expose students to the global nature of biotechnology organizations. While exploring opportunities, we seek to engage with our broader community for a very enriching student experience.

What can you tell us about the curriculum as it is planned and for its potential development?

In addition to a finance course, the track consists of a specialized sequence of five courses focused on biotechnology, including a new seminar series, Frontiers in Biotechnology, and courses on entrepreneurship and technology commercialization as well as data analytics and biostatistics. Students will also enroll in various electives offered through the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

What are the expected career outcomes for participants in the new track?

The UVA M.S. in Commerce Biotechnology Track will prepare students for a broad range of exciting careers at the intersection of business and life sciences, such as entrepreneurship, management, and leadership roles within the private sector. Possible careers include roles in biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or investment organizations, including positions in product/project management, marketing and communications, and clinical research and strategic/financial analysts.

Students will complete business and finance coursework as well as deepen their knowledge of cutting-edge industry areas of focus, becoming more marketable to employers in a variety of industries. Additionally, they will get to collaborate and network with a diverse group of peers, gaining exposure to exciting career pathways from industry leaders, medical professionals, and research scientists through the Frontiers in Biotechnology seminar.

What are your thoughts about the Biotechnology Track’s possible place within the new McIntire building, Shumway Hall, which is set to soon break ground? What might its flexible spaces help to achieve?

The innovative spaces in Shumway Hall are key to being at the cutting edge of education and bringing real-world, collaborative experiences to students. They will enhance the possibilities for students in this track to interact and learn alongside students and researchers in the School of Medicine and in Biomedical Engineering, which can aid in innovation and commercialization of new ideas and concepts as we prepare future leaders, entrepreneurs, and team members.

In what other ways will this course of study help to break new ground and advance opportunities to succeed for all students?

Women and underrepresented minorities are at an inflection point of being recognized as key stakeholders in private industry, across sectors. In business and in biotechnology, we still have a long way to go to bring about equality, but the awareness and interest in diversifying leadership and business teams from corporations are here. Empowering our future leaders, showing models, and working from example are important parts of the process to encourage and further impact change.

What are your hopes for the early days of the Biotechnology Track, and how will you personally measure its success? 

I am excited to collaborate with alumni, industry partners, and colleagues across Grounds to develop the track courses and to welcome our first cohort next fall. With a small initial cohort, we will be able to provide a personalized approach to the experience, with advising that guides students towards careers and networking opportunities aligned with their interests and goals. Early successes? Equip and inspire students to pursue careers in the biotech industry to impact our global bio-economy.