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A Life at the Intersection of Music, Biotechnology and Business

October 8, 2020

A conversation with Anne Schoemaker about her vision to sponsor The Wistar-Schoemaker International Postdoctoral Fellowship, a partnership launched in 2019 by Wistar and Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) in the Netherlands to bring LUMC graduates to Wistar for for postdoctoral training.

As a trained pianist, can you explain why you feel so passionately about biomedical research training and education?

I am a Juilliard-trained pianist, and music remains an integral part of my life, but I never made a living performing. I pivoted away from that life through a graduate degree in business which is what led me, serendipitously, I might add, into the world of biotechnology. As fate would have it, it also led me to my late husband, Hubert J.P. Schoemaker, whom I met during a meeting.

My career in biomedical technology management and licensing explains part of my interest in biomedical research and education. I joined the University of Pennsylvania’s technology transfer group at its inception. I had always enjoyed studying science, had business credentials, and wanted to work in a nonprofit environment, so I found the opportunity to join this nascent effort interesting. But I would not have predicted how much I would enjoy my interactions with scientists and the diversity of the work. That environment also provided something else: a window into the world of research, discovery and innovation and, importantly, an understanding of what is required to fuel the scientific endeavor. I remember thinking that I wished I had paid more attention in high school chemistry class (I was too busy practicing), and I learned that, not unlike mastering a musical instrument, cultivating a research scientist necessitates a program of intellectual discipline and training that begins early and continues over many years.

The other part of my interest derives from my husband’s background as a person who also fell, somewhat serendipitously, into the world of science. As a young student in the Netherlands, academics in general were not of particular interest to him, and only because his father sent him to the U.S. to “improve his English” did he somewhat accidentally find his way to the University of Notre Dame and the study of chemistry. Two years later, he was hooked – on the subject matter and what the scientific tools and repertoire enabled. He later completed a Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in record time, and he often reflected on the value of his education and training at both institutions as fundamental to enabling his seminal contributions to the field of biotechnology.

Why, as a philanthropist, did you choose Wistar to establish a postdoctoral fellowship collaboration with the Leiden University Medical Center?

First of all, I’m a Wistar alumna. Former director Hilary Koprowski hired me in the early 90s to establish the Business Development Department at Wistar, and I was fortunate to work with wonderful colleagues for several years during a very exciting time when the rabies and rotavirus vaccine technologies were commercialized. Importantly, fundamental research on the monoclonal antibody technology that formed the basis of Centocor, the company my husband co-founded, came out of Wistar. If all of these connections weren’t enough, several researchers at LUMC, our inaugural Postdoctoral Fellowship partner, were Centocor collaborators. There are many important and deeply meaningful connections among Wistar, Centocor, my husband, and myself. The choice was, therefore, pretty obvious to me.

What does an international collaboration like this bring to the trainees from Leiden and the Wistar community?

Hubert fiercely believed that collaboration was the surest path to success. In the early days of Centocor, he elevated collaboration very nearly to an art form, replacing a corporate research and development department with many highly cultivated relationships with academic institutions and scientists whose discoveries ultimately became Centocor’s products. These relationships were international: from LUMC to the Max Planck Institute in Germany, the Pasteur Institute in France, and the Imperial College London in the U.K., among others. He celebrated diversity of thinking and culture and believed the energy created by these contrasts provided creative fuel for his company. International collaboration creates a unique form of experiential learning, and this is what trainees can expect from joining us at Wistar as Fellows.

How does the program change due to the global experience of COVID-19?

Sadly for all of us, we have hit a physical pause. The health and safety of the Wistar community and future researchers and staff is paramount, so international travel and relocation is not possible at this time. The program is fully established and ready to be implemented as soon as it is safe to do so, and there is much excitement and anticipation on the part of our Dutch colleagues to operationalize the Fellowship. In the meantime, we continue to engage with our colleagues at LUMC and cultivate additional relationships with interested parties, albeit through digital platforms, as we believe this Fellowship program could be replicable worldwide.