Shining a Spotlight on 'Non-Technical' Skills

Courses like Critical Thinking and Communications allow Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) students to develop expertise in the lab and outside of it.

As Ryan Mayers was looking over potential graduate school programs, a prerequisite for him was a heavy emphasis on research. When he reviewed information about the Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) at Northwestern, he saw an added benefit in the program's attention to "non-technical" skills like critical thinking and communications.

"These are a lot of outside-of-lab skills which I think are important in being successful in any career, but which scientific training doesn't emphasize as much," Mayers says. "For me, they weren't the reason I decided to apply or come here, but they were definitely seen as a positive addition to the curriculum of the program when I was evaluating it."

Luke O'Donnell agreed. He too applied to MBP because of its research focus but saw advantages with learning about "non-technical" skills along the way.

O'Donnell and Mayers both took MBP's Critical Thinking and Communications course this past quarter, and they took a few minutes to look back on it and why they think it's an important part of the program.

What were you looking forward to about the Critical Thinking and Communications course?

RM: Definitely working on expressing my research in a lot of different formats: written, presentations, pre-recorded videos. Each style is a little bit different, and there usually aren't a ton of great opportunities to rehearse these in front of an audience before it matters.

LO:  I was most looking forward to learning how to properly display my ideas and my work in a manner that can be understood by a broader audience. These courses also allow me to craft arguments in a way that is clearer and without any fallacies.

Why do you think it's important for someone specifically in biotech to have a solid understanding of communication skills and tactics?

RM: We're working with really technical, highly specialized knowledge. Even in a strict research environment, you need to convey both your work and enough background to grasp it to people who aren't inherently specialists in your field, and you need to do it quickly enough to gain and keep their interest. I think this is vital enough in the lab, but it's even more so if you look at areas where you'll be working with people who might not actually be invested in the science itself, like interacting with the business side in industry or teaching general coursework in academia.

LO: Within a field that is intertwined with a plethora of other fields, like medicine, law, public health, etc., it is important to be able to properly communicate ideas across this broad spectrum. Overall the benefits to all affected parties will be higher if there can be clear communication between all of them.

How important was the research emphasis within MBP in your decision to come to MBP?

RM: I plan on pursuing a career in academia and came to MBP from an NIH postbac fellowship, so staying involved with active research was vital. The selling point for me was how flexible MBP was. They weren't going to make me work in a microbiology or chemical engineering lab, so I saw that as an opportunity to take these more quantitative and engineering-inspired skills I'd learn in my coursework and bring them back to studying neurodegenerative diseases and working with stem cell models in the lab, which is something I am really passionate about.

LO: Research was indeed a major factor in determining my selection of this program, plus the resources and diverse options that the program had would allow me to choose whichever path seemed to fit my interests.