Spring 2023 | MCB 295

Barker Hall

A Wealth of Possibilities  
Career seminar shows MCB graduate students the power of their PhD  

By Sophia Friesen


I know this room very well. As a first- and second-year graduate student, I spent a lot of Monday evenings in this small, wood-paneled lecture hall, trying to figure out one of the scariest questions of grad school: what I wanted to do with my life. I think I have an answer now, but it’s still good to be back, watching the familiar sight of two MCB alumni settling in at the front of the room as the seats fill up with graduate students. MCB 295 is about to begin.

MCB 295, Careers in Biosciences, is a class in the loosest sense. There are no faculty, no assignments, no stable course roster. Instead, every week, MCB graduate alumni from a diverse array of career paths come to share insights about their work. Students have the chance to ask professionals anything about their work, and to see what the future might hold from someone who once was in their shoes. 

Marian Fairgrieve
Marian Fairgrieve

Marian Fairgrieve and Oscar Whitney, the graduate students who facilitate MCB 295, see it as a valuable way for their peers – and themselves – to explore career paths beyond the traditional tenure-track academia. “It's not so sustainable for everybody to go out and get a professorship,” says Whitney, “so it's really cool to show that there's a lot of fulfilling avenues to explore.” This year, attendees have the opportunity to connect with professionals in fields ranging from biotech and consulting to science communication and entrepreneurship. 

Oscar Whitney
Oscar Whitney

Fairgrieve adds that Berkeley is especially well positioned for students interested in alternative career paths. “Particularly in the Bay Area, we have such a wealth of companies that are related to life sciences. As Berkeley, it's important to take advantage of that.”

Today, the focus is on taking an MCB PhD into the world of patent law. The guests of honor are MCB alums Armbien Sabillo, an intellectual property counsel, and Elena Rodriguez, a patent scientist and law clerk. As the conversation warms up, the panelists discuss the nuts and bolts of their daily work and lead the audience through the winding path of their careers. For Sabillo, the trajectory towards patent law started as a grad student in this very room. “I was sitting right there,” he says, gesturing out to the tiers of seats. “This is where I met my first patent attorney, in MCB 295.” 

MCB 295 Law PanelAs they discuss their favorite aspects of their work, the panelists’ enthusiasm makes a compelling argument for life outside of academia. But they’re also honest about the difficult or frustrating parts of their careers. Getting the full picture of a wide variety of jobs is valuable for attendees and organizers alike. Whitney explains, “Even if a session clarifies that I don't want to do something, that's still a very useful experience.”

The panel hits the hour mark and then surpasses it, but nobody seems to want to leave. After a few more rounds of questions and answers, the panel ends – but the conversation continues, as alumni and grad students casually mingle around stacks of pizza. 

Perhaps comfortingly for uncertain grad students, a major takeaway of the night – and of MCB 295 sessions in general – is that career trajectories are rarely linear. “It all comes together wherever you are, and you just bring all that with you,” says Sabillo. “Our journeys are never over.”




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