Some background information is below, but the conversation I had with Greg touched on something worth further consideration. He grew up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey ─ a rural, blue-collar part of the state where people often didn't think about higher education. Greg himself wasn't thinking about it, and certainly his father wasn't thinking about it for him. Yet the high school he attended required taking the SAT in order to graduate, and when his scores were seen by his guidance counselor, it raised a flag. The counselor sent the scores off to a college in Philadelphia, and he also found a donor to pay Greg's tuition. In that moment, the trajectory of Greg's life changed, and his mind, uniquely suited for science, was redirected.
His story reminded me of Lino Gonzalez, whom I interviewed for our feature on racial inequity in biotech. Gonzalez wasn't considering college, either, but he had a great science teacher in high school who got him hooked, and a guidance counselor who eventually nudged Gonzalez toward the University of California at Santa Barbara. That changed his life, too, and he earned a PhD in molecular and cell biology, and has lived his life in biotech ever since.
I've interviewed many people in this industry: almost without exception, somewhere along the way a person pulled them aside, or made a call, or opened a door and helped them get to the next level. The world isn't quite the meritocracy I'd like to think it is, and the hard truth is that without this kind of help, great talent can get squandered.
When I think of diversity and inclusion in biotech, this always comes to mind. The social justice argument for greater diversity can be made, and it will convince some people. The business argument can be made ─ a diverse company handles adversity better ─ and that will convince others. But also, biotech is a fast-growing industry, and it needs ever-more talent. There are brilliant women and men who are not being tapped. They are from places like the Pine Barrens. They are from small towns like Shelby, Montana, where Leroy Hood finished high school. And, most pressing in the US, they are from black, Latino and Native American communities all across the country. In particular these groups face huge hurdles, and they are greatly under-represented in the life sciences.
It is a complex problem that will not be fixed overnight. But for people in a position to help, Greg Verdine's story is a reminder to keep your eyes fully open, to search widely for talent, and when you come across it, extend a hand.
Here are some links related to the rest of the podcast. A link to Greg's Gloucester Biotech Academy. Here is an article in Xconomy detailing Verdine's announcement that he would retire from teaching to become full-time CEO of LifeMine and FogPharma, and here's an article when LifeMine secured their Series A funding. And below is a wintry shot of the preserved land and waterway adjacent to FogPharma in West Cambridge.