This year’s commencement speaker, an biotech and social entrepreneur, talks about her path to biology from economics and her citizen science efforts.
Eri Gentry is an economist-turned-biotech and social entrepreneur and a resident Biofuturist at the Institute for the Future. In that role, she helps organizations navigate technology disruption, shifts in human identity and the tides of social change with an eye to illuminating currents in science and technology that will transform how we live, work and create change in the next decade. Gentry also sits on the board of Summer.org, a STEM education organization devoted to bringing advanced technology into the classroom. She served as vice president of open innovation for Scanadu, a Silicon Valley consumer medical device startup; co-founded Livly, a consumer medical device startup; and launched BioCurious, a member-based, non-profit community laboratory open to aspiring researchers from all backgrounds. Gentry was included on Techonomy’s Top Ten for 2013 and named a White House Champion of Change.
You started out in economics and made a major detour into biology. Can you talk a little about changing course?
Exposure is key. I grew up working in my parents’ small-town grocery store and came to believe business also made sense for me. I’d started side-businesses as a kid and even started putting my savings in the stock market.
But I’d never seen life as a scientist or an engineer, or even inside of a large company. Since those small-town days, exposure to each of these professional domains changed my beliefs and, several times, my career.
During college, I focused on economics after ironically deciding a career in biology wasn’t right for me. (Who knew?!) After college, I started a career in finance, and quickly had an existential mini-crisis, wondering what the real impact of my work would be.
Around the same time, by chance, I met a couple of biotech interns at a networking event. They invited me to their lab and when they described their work as developing life-saving treatments, it really hit me that this was what really mattered. How many financiers could say they were saving lives?
Carpe Diem. Within a few weeks, my worldview had shifted. I didn’t know how but I knew I wanted to help these people and people like them in whatever way I could. And this experience set me on the course I’m on today.
You were named a White House Champion of Change for Citizen Science. What sparked your interest in citizen science?
Realizing I wanted to work in biology after leaving academia was profoundly bad timing. There were really no opportunities for someone without bench training to get involved. It honestly took me over a year just to find a volunteer position.
I’ve since realized that it’s not about scientists and research organizations not wanting or needing help, but that there’s a mismatch between the research world and, let’s call them “citizens.”
Living outside the world of institutional biology gave me perspective on what other gaps existed. For instance, when my cofounder and I started Livly, a self-funded biotech startup, we couldn’t afford any commercial lab space in the area. Rather than give up, we built a lab we could afford in our garage.
We started getting requests to rent our garage lab and offers from Ph.D.-level scientists who wanted to volunteer for our tiny company.
Clearly, there was something missing for a whole host of people, whether it was teaching opportunities, affordable lab space, classes that fit their schedule, or simply a community.
Addressing these needs was really the impetus behind BioCurious, which we opened in 2011 to provide space, community and education for scientists and non-scientists alike, with the not-so-secret mission to inspire everyone to be a scientist in some way.
Our community now includes more than 60 wet lab members and over 1,800 people who are involved in a variety of ways, from teaching classes to leading our iGEM team. We are glad to not only serve our community but also to be engaged in conversations with local research organizations, tech companies and even with policymakers on the federal and global scale.
We are volunteer-led and open to the public. Should you ever be in the Bay Area, I welcome you to visit!
What advice would you give students who want to make a difference graduating with a biology degree today?
- Ask for help — a lot. Others have been where you are, and what's always amazed me is they want to help. But staying silent gets you nowhere. A tough lesson for a shy person like me to learn, but an important one.
- Embrace what makes you unique and use it to your advantage. There were many times I felt like an oddball (and probably was) with crazy ambitions. Trust yourself! At first, only you can see what’s going on in your head. Over time, what once seemed like crazy ideas become innovative solutions.
- Think like a hacker. What’s the quickest way to get from point A to point B, to solve some problem? How would you approach a problem if there were no rules or no one to ask for permission? Stripping a problem to its core can make you think of new solutions and raise questions you’d never thought to ask.
To watch Eri Gentry's speech and the entire 2015 CBS commencement, you can follow the live stream, which will launch prior to the ceremony on the CBS commencement page.