The Master of Bioscience (MBS) degree Juan José Aponte-Ubillús earned at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in 2013 set the foundation for his career in biotechnology. But KGI’s Cooperative Awards Student Training (CAST) PhD program made him the industry scientist he is today.
Aponte-Ubillús, who earned his PhD from KGI in 2018, is currently employed as a scientist at BioMarin, a world leader in biopharmaceuticals for rare genetic diseases. He first joined the Novato, California–based company as a research associate in 2014 and subsequently realized he wanted to become more involved in the science behind biotechnology.
“I’ve always been interested in research and higher education. I really wanted more scientific training and to investigate how we can make drugs more efficient.”
That led him to become the third student, and first sponsored by BioMarin, to participate in KGI’s innovative CAST PhD program, which was introduced in 2015. Students in this program focus on an industry-based research project and have advisors and mentors at both KGI and the sponsoring company.
Aponte-Ubillús viewed the CAST PhD as offering exactly what he was looking for in a program. He explains that it provides an opportunity to develop both the scientific mindset of a PhD student engaged in basic science and increased understanding of how this research can translate into a tangible project for industry.
As his doctoral research project, Aponte-Ubillús explored whether it was possible to use a different process and cell type to generate an existing gene therapy product more simply, quickly, and economically. Aponte-Ubillús performed his research onsite at BioMarin and travelled to Claremont monthly to report on his progress and obtain feedback from his advisors at KGI.
“My advisors at KGI and BioMarin established realistic objectives and timelines, and after that I flew solo. I was very independent after the first year,” says Aponte-Ubillús. “Having a company supporting the program is a big advantage. You have a lot of technological resources and scientists surrounding you who are experts in an area of interest to you. Those two aspects had a positive impact on the progress of my project.”
Meanwhile, his advisors at KGI helped him stay focused on the end goal of his project and his requirements as a PhD student, including research presentations and publications.
“I think KGI was very good in having advisors with vast industry experience and a project-oriented mindset,” says Aponte-Ubillús.
He believes the CAST PhD program has given him a unique skill set and scientific foundation. It also helped Aponte-Ubillús achieve several of his goals: He demonstrated the feasibility of his proposed approach to production. He increased his scientific knowledge and produced three published papers based on his research. And he was able to move into a position as a scientist at BioMarin, working with the same manager and scientific staff that he had as a PhD student.
“He was already well qualified because he did a master’s at KGI, but the PhD on top of that expanded his scientific background,” says Daniel Barajas, a senior scientist at BioMarin who advised Aponte-Ubillús during his PhD program. “Now he applies that to more significant work on projects. He is very capable intellectually and technically.”
Aponte-Ubillús also has an opportunity as a BioMarin employee to continue the research he began as a KGI doctoral student.
“I don’t spend 100 percent of my time on this project now, but I still have the freedom to follow up on my studies and explore ideas that may generate a technology that the company can leverage,” he says.