Torn between the lab and the business side of science, Elisa MacColl ’16 envisioned a graduate program that didn’t seem to exist: one that would mesh her dual interests. Then Harvard University read her mind. It launched its MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences program, and MacColl earned a spot in the 11-member inaugural class.
She and her classmates began the new program in August, and although the pandemic derailed the first course that had been scheduled — it was a lab — the replacement course about COVID-19 had a stellar lineup of guest lecturers.
“These speakers were people who were developing guidelines for how California was going to reopen, and Massachusetts was going to reopen, and if schools were going to open, so they were actual decision-makers in this process,” MacColl said. “Some of them were policy people, some of them were scientists and epidemiologists. It was super cool. We dove into an epidemiological model of COVID.”
Here’s how Harvard pitches the new offering: “The curriculum emphasizes an understanding of effective, sustainable business models for discovery and development, the ethical implications of new therapeutics, and equitable access to the fruits of therapeutic discovery.”
As a Hamilton biology major, MacColl enjoyed her research experience with Associate Professor of Biology Wei-Jen Chang, who is now department chair. By senior year, as she pondered entering a doctoral program, she wondered if she were ready to spend all years in a lab. She found an alternative at a Career Center session about L.E.K. Consulting, where she met firm representative Thilo Henkes ’92. MacColl took a position with L.E.K. after she graduated.
Working in the life sciences section, she learned lots about pharmaceutical and biotech companies and their therapies, and working on different teams was exciting. Still, she wondered whether she was moving too far from hard science. Maybe she should go to med school or pursue a biology doctorate? Yet an MBA was attractive because she would learn how to run a business. Without business acumen, how do you use the science to benefit people? And if you don’t have the scientific knowledge, what sort of business do you have?
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MacColl Googled grad programs that combined science and an MBA but found none. A couple of years later, she went looking again, at the right time to discover the new Harvard program. By enrolling she proved a theory Chang posited when she was still on the Hill. He’d told her back then that he thought she’d get an MBA someday. She was dubious.
“I worked with him throughout college, and he knew me super well. And he really thought that I would go get an MBA because I was so social,” she said. Chang thought she’d like to work with people and lead teams, rather than sitting by herself in a lab. He got that right. MacColl loved the program from that first course with the stream of experts.
“Every day, I felt like I had a new idea for a career path. I was like, ‘wow, that person is super cool, let me think about that,’” she said. “So my hope is that by the end of these two years, I’ve been exposed to a ton of new things, and then I can decide in what direction I want to take my career going forward.”