"The tools we now have are driving a pace of discovery
and depth of insight that seems incredible compared to
even just a few years ago when I was in a lab at Yale."
Jason Park (BK’04; PhD’11) is currently working on starting a biotech company. He is a Principal at Flagship Pioneering, a life sciences firm focused on conceiving and creating many first-in-category, highly ambitious companies that seek to “change what we thought or hoped was even possible with a wide variety of important diseases.” We asked him to tell us how he became a part of the Public Health scene, and what he predicts for its future.
What is your favorite aspect of your research?
I love being surprised and seeing something that doesn't fit my mental model or what I'd learned about how human biology works. And there's so much of that happening right now; the tools we now have are driving a pace of discovery and depth of insight that seems incredible compared to even just a few years ago when I was in a lab at Yale.
What legislation or public policy initiative would improve how work in your field is done?
Academic institutions in the United States are deeply important to the advancement of medical knowledge worldwide. I’d lived abroad in India and Europe and worked with the biopharma industry in those contexts before joining Flagship Pioneering, and coming back to the United States has reinforced my belief that research institutions in the US are world class and a critical source of global medical innovation. It'd be great to see more funding and support for scientists and engineers working in our institutions.
The road to development can be long and winding. Tell us about how your most recent project came to be?
I'd spent the past couple years getting to know the biotech and academic research community in New York City and some of those discussions led to an exploration in an area I hadn’t spent much time thinking about previously - how altered cells, including in many cancers, interact or even compete with each other and their surroundings and what happens to that dynamic over time. During my PhD I’d studied how immune cells interact with tumors, but those studies tend to be conducted under limited and/or artificial settings. And even with all the success we’ve seen with immunotherapies, we clearly have a long way to go to before we really understand what’s happening in any given patient.
Our exploration process itself can be long and winding, so we've got a way to go yet before I can really speak to the possibilities of what we’re working on. But one of the things that first attracted me to Flagship Pioneering is its unique approach to conceiving and starting biotechs based on unprecedented science or technologies - we're very comfortable with pursuing the unexplored and the winding path that may entail.
What business pressures (whether getting funding or taking a product to market) have you felt in your career?
One thing that I've always found interesting about biotechnology is that, unlike many other industries, it fundamentally revolves around exploration and discovery. You form hypotheses and then expend a tremendous amount of resources to try to uncover some basic truths about nature that, years later (usually), lead to (hopefully) new ways of preventing, treating, or curing a set of diseases. So one of the pressures that permeates every company I've worked with relates to thinking about how to build business models and financing around this discovery-based process - how and when to devote resources to an unknown.
Share a turning point or defining moment in your work.
I was fortunate enough to be working in a lab at Yale while some of the research in that lab was being spun out into a start-up biotech. On a given day, I could find myself at the bench doing experiments in the morning, talking to researchers at various universities in the afternoon, and working on presentations and grant applications in the evening. It was all incredibly stimulating, and more importantly, purpose-driven. I hoped then, and still do, that I'll always get to work in that type of environment.
What is the role of mentors in science? Have you relied on a mentor?
Mentors, with a big M or a little m, are important in every industry. I think they give you basically two things: advice/coaching and contacts. On the former, so much of what drives great science takes place outside of classrooms and publications under the leadership of mentors, for example, learning how to think critically and creatively and how to collaborate. On the latter, scientific communities can be small and the help of a few advocates can really make a difference in your career. I feel very fortunate to be able to count Yale professors Tarek Fahmy, Mark Saltzman, and Richard Flavell as mentors who had tremendous influence in shaping my interests and guiding me down the path I’ve taken. Throughout the years, I can't think of an important moment in my life where I didn't rely on a mentor or two.
Public health is a huge topic no matter what one’s specialty. What do you view as the #1 health challenge today?
Through my previous work as a consultant, I’d been exposed to some obvious public health challenges – I’d worked with the HIV team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and with a group at the WHO focused on funding innovative technologies for TB, Malaria, and HIV. Across these experiences, I’ve come to believe that our best bet for improving public health is through the broad advancement of science – whether through direct effects on individuals, such as better medicines, or through indirect effects on the environment, economies, and education systems. So one thing I’ve become concerned about is the misunderstanding, or worse, deliberate undermining of science. Disregard for evidence when it comes to matters of public health has the potential for broad and long-lasting ramifications.
What is your best advice for recent grads?
Don't try to script out your life, take some chances.