Sherin Sonia Jacob: Voices of Penn Engineering Master’s Alumni
This is the second of our series of articles, written by Penn Engineering alums in their own words, of their experiences at Penn and how it shaped their lives. Our second article is written by Sherin Sonia Jacob, who graduated with a master’s in Biotechnology in 2011. She is a senior health care and pharmaceutical consultant and the Director for Research and Development for emergingrule, an educational startup developing products focusing on personalized learning. A polyglot, she enjoys reading political biographies and philately
“What is biotechnology?” This is a common question I get in any professional and social setting. I always smile and reply, “It is the bridge that connects life sciences to its relevant industry. If you have a nanoscale innovation, then a biotechnologist is pivotal to help you scale it to a macro level and introduce the product to the market.”
The simplicity of this answer surprises many people, who are expecting a long and convoluted answer. An important lesson I learned in Penn Engineering’s Biotechnology master’s program is to keep information simple, succinct and straightforward. The fusion of research, engineering and business experiences at Penn has been vital for my successful work at emergingrule.
Growing up in India and having completed my undergraduate education, I wanted a graduate program that would have a strong impact on my life and shape my career choices. As the child of an Indian entrepreneur, who had no business background when he started his business, but whose hard work and dedication has been ever inspiring, the search for a graduate program that combined medicine, engineering and business came to fruition at the Penn Biotechnology program through its interdisciplinary coursework from Penn Engineering, The Wharton School, and the Perelman School of Medicine.
My biggest takeaway from the program is learning how to adapt, address and provide solutions to challenging issues that arise in health-care and life sciences. The professors and courses that played a critical role are Dennis Discher, (Nanoscale Systems Biology) who introduced me first hand to the research being done at his lab; Scott Diamond, (Drug Discovery and Development) who played a pivotal role in teaching in great depth the process of pharmaceutical manufacturing from concept inception to market launch; Jeffrey Babin, (Engineering Entrepreneurship I) who taught the convergence of engineering and the business world with a practical and hands-on approach; and Wen K. Shieh, (Probability and Statistics for Biotechnology) who made complex mathematical concepts simpler to understand.
Outside of course work, engaging with the Penn Biotechnology Group gave me first-hand experience in client interactions and effective problem solving in a business and industry setup; volunteering with FIRST LEGO League to see young students being engaged in STEM activities by designing robots with LEGO and solving complex problems around it; as well as being a part of the Society for Women Engineers and Advancing Women in Engineering to have the opportunity to encourage young girls to consider STEM as a career choice and to mentor young women throughout their schooling, sharing experiences and encouraging them. These encounters continue to inspire me and give me confidence in my present-day work.
A strong academic repertoire and other learning opportunities at Penn have been valuable in my position as a senior pharmaceutical consultant for European and South American health care and pharmaceutical companies. My business and biotech background has enabled me to help my customers navigate complex FDA regulations when introducing new products into U.S. markets. The progress in the global initiative to fight infectious diseases and the response of pharmaceutical companies to share knowledge and set up base worldwide has been a great learning experience on a professional front.
My business and research experiences at Penn Biotech have also been instrumental in my work as the director at emergingrule, an exciting startup that is offering an educational platform for individualized learning. Our company uses a machine learning-based platform to educate school-age children about unique STEM fields, such as agriculture, oceanography, and coding. The students can set their lesson goals and choose a learning mode to set the pace of learning to their liking. A constant feedback and troubleshooting assistance is on hand at all times to prevent students from getting overwhelmed or discouraged. The platform is accessible to parents and teachers to gauge a child’s interest and aptitude to guide future career choices effectively and successfully.
Once again, my training at Penn comes in handy in understanding the nuances and intricacies involved in taking a product from conceptualization to completion in a fast-paced environment. In our startup, I work in multiple roles, ranging from meeting investors, working on the platform with our software developers, and developing the learning material with our subject specialist. I seek to have an impact on the lives of others, whether it is introducing innovative medicine to help save lives, or benefiting thousands of children in their learning experiences.
I remember being crushed and feeling absolutely dejected getting my first “C” grade at Penn. But bouncing back from that, I realized that grades do not always translate into skills. Penn has taught me to always keep learning, celebrate who I am, and to surround myself with honest and humble people.
My time in Penn has been invaluable to me professionally and personally. It has profoundly impacted me to become a strong and fearless individual willing to change the world for the better one step at a time.