Each month, BCMB News will highlight an esteemed alumnus of the program. This month, contributor Tom Schaffer interviews Dr. E. Loren Buhle, Life Sciences Excecutive at IBM.
Dr. E. Loren Buhle attended the BCMB program from years 1980 to 1985, completing his thesis work in the lab of Ueli Aebi in the Department of Cell Biology. Beginning as a tenure-track professor, he segued into the pharmaceutical industry and later his current position at IBM by creatively parlaying the skills he acquired during his graduate work. His career arc demonstrates the utility and potential of a BCMB PhD beyond more traditional academic career paths in the life sciences.
“I liked the BCMB program because it offered an opportunity to try out a number of different things, some of which I’d never experienced before… I didn’t want to go into a program where I thought I already knew what I wanted before I got there… There was a whole lot going on that I didn’t know much about, and I wanted to check it out.” In a closely-knit community that afforded widespread opportunities for collaboration, “we all flourished,” says Buhle, and an open sharing of reagents and technical expertise among peers resulted in interdisciplinary projects where “everyone got credit.”
UPenn and OncoLink
Following graduation, Dr. Buhle performed a short post-doc before transitioning into a dual-appointment tenure-track position in the University of Pennsylvania’s Departments of Radiation Oncology and Cell Biology. It was here that he founded OncoLink. He explains, “Back when I was doing my thesis I had to write all the programs… so I always had the IT capability. I was doing a lot of oncology, and I had also started some virtual communities… around breast cancer or brain tumors, et cetera, and I got tired of answering the same question over and over again. So in 1993, I created a website… a new resource which I called OncoLink.”
OncoLink garnered several awards during the early stages of the world wide web. A departmental power-struggle prompted by the site’s success served as the impetus for Buhle to leave academia, and for the next year he took to independent web consulting, establishing sites for pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and The Scientist publication. He was soon recruited to SmithKlineBeecham, now GlaxoSmithKline, as an R&D executive dealing in information management. Thriving in a setting where he was able to frequently tackle wide-ranging problems, Buhle subsequently joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as a consultant and continued into IBM after their acquisition of the company.
“We tend to look on large areas [such as] the food supply and the safety of the water supply. Could you manage that with greater efficiency? If you had thousands of detectors generating Big Data, how would that change how you manage?” proposes Buhle. IBM’s Big Data initiative seeks to solve the integration of large, complex, and heterogeneous data sets, and was famously showcased by the computer “Watson” on the game show Jeopardy! On his own job, Buhle elaborates: “Some of IBM focuses on aspects of technology, and other roles focus on industry across multiple technologies… My area is in life sciences… manufacturing, quality, sales, and R&D. My role is to sell, and to a small degree to deliver, to ensure that the software services and also hardware actually work together and hit the business and scientific targets the client established.” His past projects have applied analytics to the streamlining of clinical trials, the optimization of product distribution and quality control from blood suppliers, and the large-scale manufacture and distribution of pharmaceuticals, among other things.
Tangible, Intangible Benefits
Dr. Buhle finds satisfaction in tackling “first of a kind” problems never seen before, and he enjoys collaborating with experts in other fields to aid clients in formulating the correct inquiries to optimize specific business goals. He values “watching [trainees] grow, evolve, and move on to prosper,” and “the projects that are successfully implemented and stand the test of time… that what I laid down, I got right.”
“[Getting your PhD] is really about learning how to think and solve problems that have never been solved before,” Buhle says. The valuable, and marketable, outcome of a science PhD is the ability to “do an assessment, understand the picture, create a hypothesis, test the hypothesis… there’s a structure to how you come to a conclusion.” From there, narrowing down upon a specific discipline – be it academia, industry, or business – depends in part on preference. “[Academics] don’t have a lot of power in terms of politics… in the sharing of space, resources, and whatnot… and money is something you scramble for. On the other hand, you get to work on things you design and get funding for, so you have a lot more freedom,” Buhle says. By comparison, “It’s very different in the commercial space, where money is not that much of an issue… however you’re told what to work on. It’s much more structured, and you have definitive targets [and] measures of success [that] focus on the efficiency of scientific discovery.” Explaining further, “Going from academia to commercial consulting is a world change… You don’t [consult] for yourself,” he emphasizes, “you do it for what your client values about you.” Interestingly, Buhle mentions mentorship as a shared element between business and academia, and opportunities exist for continued growth through the undertaking of challenging consulting projects under the guidance of more experienced tutors.
Dr. Buhle points out: “My fellow faculty members will say I crossed to the dark side. But let me tell you, everyone says ‘You’ve crossed to the dark side;’ it’s very common and it brings a smile to my face. It was just a very different environment; the politics were wildly different, going from academia to commercial.” He recommends that interested graduate-level students gain post-doctoral experience in a manner to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, to work at interfaces between industries as a way to broaden their experience. Future plans for the union of technology and the life sciences will continue to require critical problem solving expertise to implement. To quote, “You’ve seen Watson for Jeopardy! about a year ago- let’s do that for healthcare. Let’s figure out what the optimal cancer treatment, say at Sloan Kettering Institute, is for this individual patient… [then] keep on measuring.”