Controversial plan brings Ph.D. students to biotech for training

As life science Ph.D. holders in the United States increasingly find postgraduation employment at for-profit companies, more and more institutions are offering internship programs and career guidance services that aim to give students a taste of industry. Now, one university is going a step further, allowing students to spend the bulk of their Ph.D. training at a biotech startup.

The plan has been met with mixed reviews. Some see it as an exciting opportunity for students amid the rapidly evolving Ph.D. employment landscape. Others worry students won’t get a true graduate school experience and could suffer from limits to their academic freedom.

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), announced the plan at a town hall event last month, telling the campus community that the university had signed an agreement with Altos Labs, a Silicon Valley startup focused on the science of cell health, resilience, and rejuvenation that has garnered billions in funding from wealthy investors. The agreement paves the way for UCSF graduate students to work under the supervision of Altos-based scientists, including UCSF faculty members who relocated to the company in March and retain unpaid faculty status.

Two students have signed on so far, both of whom were already working in the labs of scientists moving to Altos. “It’s a rare opportunity to explore the balance between curiosity and mission-driven science within a collaborative group and with excellent resources,” says Zach Cogan, a second-year Ph.D. student now based at Altos. “That’s the type of environment in which I want to do my training.”

The plan builds on other career development and support programs available at UCSF, including a program that helps graduate students find internships off campus, notes UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, the administrator who led discussions with Altos ahead of signing the agreement. “For me, this was a natural extension,” he says. It also allows faculty who are moving to Altos to continue to supervise graduate students, which some expressed a desire to do, according to Altos Labs founder and Chief Scientist Rick Klausner. “We want Altos to be part of the academic ecosystem,” he adds.

Under the agreement, students will complete coursework at UCSF and may do first-year lab rotations at UCSF and Altos. Those who choose to work under Altos researchers will be almost entirely based at the company for the remainder of their doctorate, although they will retain access to graduate student functions and on-campus support. In return, Altos will pay UCSF to cover each student’s tuition, fees, and stipend. The company also pledged $25 million to the university’s graduate programs over 5 years, to be used at the discretion of the dean of the graduate division, Hawgood says.

The agreement—which was signed on 1 March but few at UCSF have seen—also specifies that Altos-based graduate students will be “employees of UCSF and not of Altos Labs” and won’t be eligible to receive any “significant financial incentives or significant fringe benefits” unless UCSF-based graduate students receive something similar.

The program will be overseen by a governance committee and changes will be made as needed, Hawgood adds. “This is complete freedom of choice for graduate students to decide to do their thesis work at Altos. There’s no quota or … obligation on our part. So we’re excited to be able to make this an option for the students in the coming years.”

Stephen Floor, an assistant professor in cell and tissue biology at UCSF, hasn’t decided whether he’s in favor of the agreement. “There is a possibility that this will end up being a really interesting experiment”—as long as the needs of the students are put first, he says. But Floor worries students based at Altos, which is 30 kilometers southeast of the UCSF campus, will miss out on interactions with peers. “Community is a really integral part of graduate school. … There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that’s held by the student population that is really important for students to be able to access.”

He notes that partnerships between universities and for-profit companies aren’t unusual, pointing to a recent agreement between Johns Hopkins University and Amazon that will fund scholarships for graduate students to do research on artificial intelligence. “What’s not common is for … their primary worksite to be based in a for-profit company. And I think that’s really what the center of the conversation is.” Another UCSF professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted the agreement is “touching a nerve” with some in the campus community because Altos is seen as a “new, secretive, weirdly funded” company.

Many in the UCSF community also expressed concern that business interests would impede the ability of Altos-based graduate students to communicate their findings to the scientific community and finish their degree within the typical time frame. “The people backing the company are professional investors, and that puts a financial pressure on outcomes,” one commented.

Klausner doesn’t foresee that being a problem because of the company’s operating model, which aims to be a hybrid between academia and industry. All of the scientists who work at Altos, for instance, have academic freedom policies written into their contract. “They’re free to publish; they’re free to collaborate,” Klausner says. Before publication, the company will look at a paper to see whether there’s intellectual property that needs to be protected. But “that’s no different than universities,” he argues. “That’s the only constraint—not just on the graduate students, but on all the scientists at Altos.”

The 20-page agreement signed by Altos and UCSF representatives does include passages aimed at protecting the academic freedom of UCSF graduate students based at the company. “Both Altos Labs and UCSF wish to avoid any potential of commercial pressures which, in a for-profit organization such as Altos Labs, could have the potential to restrict the normally free exchanges that are so important for the success of graduate students and other trainees,” it reads.

But given that few have had the opportunity to actually read that agreement, let alone contribute to how the partnership was shaped, the lack of transparency has left many in the campus community frustrated. “I think that there is definitely an implementation of this that could be really beneficial to students,” says Zara Weinberg, a cell biology postdoc who works with Hana El-Samad—one of the UCSF faculty members who moved to Altos in March. “But I think that such a manifestation is not going to happen … without the input of the entire community,” she adds. “It’s hard to believe that any decision UCSF is making is in the best interest of trainees when they are not involving trainees in that decision-making process.” (Weinberg had the option of moving to Altos but decided to remain at UCSF, a decision that El-Samad fully supported and accommodated, she says.)

According to a statement from the university, “UCSF faculty and students are not normally involved in negotiating agreements around an industry partnership. … However, the Chancellor consulted with leaders in graduate education and faculty leaders about the agreement before it was signed.”

Anna Lipkin, a sixth-year neuroscience Ph.D. student at UCSF who served on her program’s executive committee last year, when discussions with Altos began, has advised first- and second-year students against moving to the company, telling them, “This is going to fail. This is going to be terrible. You’re going to be mistreated, and also it’s such a small company—it’s so far from our campus. The isolation itself is just such a risk.” She wishes the university had started its partnership with the company along a more well-trod path, such as summer internships for Ph.D. students. Adds Mark Gergues, a Ph.D. student who served on the same executive committee as Lipkin, “There’s plenty of ways that graduate students can get industry experience, and this just seemed like the most extreme version.”

“Maybe a lot of these concerns that people have would be minimized if we really knew what was going on,” Floor says. Ultimately, he continues, the experiment UCSF is embarking on “raises questions about credentials and what it means to do a Ph.D. It raises questions about what kind of training you’re trying to seek. Can you get that training in the private sector? Maybe you can.”

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