How a month inside a Swiss biotech changed the game for an AIBN PhD scholar

2 April 2024


Tahmina Tabassum was pretty sure she knew how she wanted her PhD, and wider scientific career, to play out. Then she went to Switzerland.

For three months AIBN scholar, who works in the Wolvetang Group, relearned what she knew about industry and entrepreneurship during a placement with biotech Azafaros BV, a whirlwind experience that included a stint at the company’s headquarters in Basel.

Tahmina Tabassum is a PhD candidate in Molecular Cell Biology, working within the Wolvetang Group. 

Set up through Tahmina’s PhD supervisor Professor Ernst Wolvetang – who has collaborated with Azarfaros in the past – Tahmina’s placement continues an AIBN tradition of exposing our researchers to rigors of real-world research and development.

“Before I had very little idea about what it's like in an actual pharma or biotech company. I have always been in academia, not in biotech startups,” Tahmina says.

“I had some preconceived notions about what I’d do after I finish my PhD, like imagining which company I would join or better yet have my own patented technology.” 

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“But now I know, it's not as simple as it sounds. There's so much work that goes into bringing out just one translatable product that you don't even know might or might not succeed in the market.” 

Tahmina is a PhD candidate in Molecular Cell Biology, completing her master’s degree at Griffith University before moving over to the University of Queensland and the AIBN.

In the Wolvetang labs, Tahmina works closely with gene-editing tools. In Switzerland, none of her time was spent in the Azarfaros labs themselves.

Instead, she was tasked with gathering information on regulatory aspects of organoid models for use in preclinical drug development process.

By regularly embedding our scholars in domestic and international startups and biotechs, AIBN researchers like Tahmina are learning what it looks like to work at the frontline of science.

By her own account, Tahmina picked up a few tricks and tips that will serve her well long after her final thesis on safer gene editing systems is submitted.

Read on to see what Tahmina uncovered, and how it has changed her thinking on her PhD and where she is heading.

Welcome back Tahmina. First time to Switzerland?

Azarfaros BV is headquartered in the Swiss city of Basel, a short distance from where the country's border meets with France and Germany. 

I’d been to Zurich before, but only very briefly. Basel isn’t too far away from there actually. It is a great location business wise. You are only an hour away from Germany and France. Basel is a very historic place with the most dynamic life science cluster in Europe. It’s a lot smaller compared to the places I’ve lived but is well known as the hotbed of life science.

I’ve never lived in a small city, or somewhere where there aren’t many people who look like me or speak my language, so Basel was a unique experience. I believe putting yourself in different positions and scenarios is extremely important in building awareness of different work cultures, people and in gaining knowledge simply by seeing the world.

You cannot sit in one place and expect to incorporate ideas which will only come to you if you set foot outside where you already are. Comfort primarily doesn’t drive innovation.

You linked up with Azarfaros BV while you were over there? Who are they?

Azarfaros is a biotech that mainly focuses on finding cure to rare diseases. The CSO of Azafaros, Kyle Landskroner, has been our collaborator at Wolvetang Group and so we were able to set up an industry linked placement where I worked under his supervision for three months – including one month at their offices in Europe.

My PhD mainly focuses on genetic engineering, and a lot of gene editing projects look at mutations in rare diseases. So, it really aligned with what Azarfaros needed.

Initially, the idea was to help with scientific research in their lab in Netherlands but after some thought I took more of an office role in Switzerland, which proved to be a good idea and was indeed a game changer.

What do you mean by ‘office role’?

Well, I do a lot of work here in the AIBN labs and – while it's a new experience going to a lab in a different country - I would’ve been confined within the labs doing experiments and I wouldn't be developing transversal skills. 

A month of Tahmina's placement with Azarfaros was spent at the company's headquarters.  

So instead, my placement was based on a desk role where I researched into regulatory perspectives and guidelines from FDA, ICH, CDER and more around use of organoids. This was an entirely new role for me.

Achieving regulatory approvals for new drugs is central to the success of a pharma company or biotech company, and currently Azarfaros are going through this process for one of their lead compounds.

My project at Azarfaros was looking into how organoids, or stem cells technology, can play a role in regulatory approvals workflow in context to nonclinical trials.

Mainly I was investigating regulations and industry guidelines around stem cell technology, what's new and what's coming down the pipeline, especially in the wake of the FDA Modernization Act changes last year.

What’s the FDA Modernization Act?

Basically, it’s a piece of legislation in the US that now says animals are no longer mandatory for clinical trials, and that you can develop new approach methods to reduce the use of animals in trials. Of course, these new methods need to be validated and approved by FDA prior use.

And one of the most talked about alternatives to animal trials is organoids, hence the idea behind my placement.  Organoids encapsulates the human physiology in the lab and are often referred to as ‘mini organs in a dish’. The technology is still at its early stage and is expensive, but using organoids in screening and testing is definitely what we are moving towards. 

Through my placement, I learned that although the Modernization Act is out there, it's still going to be a long time till people adapt these new trends into their research. And secondly, for organoids, I think there is still time for the technology to develop further.

So, I mean, it's good that the practice has started already. But there's still a long way to go before we can say that, yes, we have validated organoid models that can reduce animal testing. Or we can just use organoids and trust these results to get an orphan drug designation or an NDA.

Sounds like you covered a lot in a short time over there.

I learned so much about organoids during my time at Azarfaros. I laugh because I work in an organoid lab here at the AIBN, but I specialise in gene editing and my knowledge is limited to the science behind organoids or the research we do in lab. So, I recognised my gap in knowledge in terms of application and current trends in the organoid field.

Because I was trying to find out as much as I can about what is the status of organoids not just in research, but in industry, I had to reach out to people in the field to learn from them and meet them in person in Basel. It was a great way to build that skill to talk to people outside of your comfort zone. I can attest that this exercise remarkably improved my communication skills and confidence.

I must flag that I was on my own trying to find the relevant connections. I figured out the names myself. I figured out how to reach them myself in a country I’ve never lived in before. And I am thankful to my supervisor, Kyle, for placing this challenge instead of handing me out a list of his connections.

So even for that the experience was worth it because now I know if I really need to find someone or talk to, to get information, I can reach that person and speak without hesitation.

Who were some of the industry experts you were speaking with in Basel?

One day I went to the headquarters of pharma giant Roche and met someone who could help me a bit understand the dynamics of gene therapy and how Switzerland is going about it.

Another day, at University of Basel, there was a conference that was held on mRNAs that I attended. I met people from all around Switzerland, from Zurich, from Lausanne. And that was also a great learning and networking experience for me as there were people from all areas of the industry including Lonza, NanoVation, CSL Behring, WHO and more. The personal takeaway from that event was that there are numerous pathways you can steer your scientific career to after PhD beyond academia and experimentations.

I also met people from HUB Organoids in the Netherlands. And German company Evotec. All of these are companies I would have never reached out to because in my PhD, I am not required to talk to them.

Is science sometimes about who you know, instead of what you know?

I think it’s a balance. You need to have the prior knowledge to first start and get accepted into a PhD program.

But even getting into a PhD program is through sending emails to the right supervisors, reading their work, trying to find out who is offering a particular project that interests you.

It's a very competitive process. So, I feel like most people who do end up getting a PhD scholarship or get funded for their project, they already understand the importance of being able to talk to people, asking for opportunities, pushing yourselves out there.

And in my PhD, I have realised that it's so important to know people within the industry as well, because after your PhD, you're on your own. And these connections that you make help you take your next step.  

During your PhD, the university still guides you, your supervisors are guiding you. But after that, if you do a postdoc, or you want to move to industry, you are finding your own way, where both what you know and who you know is equally important. 

"You cannot sit in one place and expect to incorporate ideas which will only come to you if you set foot outside where you already are. Comfort primarily doesn’t drive innovation."

So it is during this time, you can make the most links, trying to understand who is involved in what kind of research, network both vertically and horizontally and maybe at some point, someone might have the right opportunity for you.

So yes, it's very important to have those kinds of collaboration. And even with UQ’s Liveris Academy, I’m networking with cross disciplinary people, you know, trying to find more opportunities for myself just by talking to people, being part of a network and understanding what they're doing.

Will this experience in Switzerland change how you approach your PhD?

I think it does change it, not just my approach to PhD but my outlook on having a career in science. It helped me realise my goals were maybe a bit dreamier, but now I feel like after coming back, I'm more thoughtful with my goals.

I know what it is possible to achieve and what will be uncertain, and that there is a big factor of luck involved. So, my perspective has changed a bit in that way.

I do want to continue to pursue industry linked projects and entrepreneurship - I do have a feel for it. I don't think I'm someone who would be super happy with a desk job, or super excited with working in the lab. I think with this experience, I kind of realised I like doing multiple things but mostly like to solve problems. I also realised that I like talking to people and doing this whole consultant kind of role.

I sure am a bit more relaxed after I came back in terms of setting realistic goals and understanding that everything I want might not come true. But, from this experience I’ve also learned that setbacks are temporary and there is always the next big thing waiting for you.