This May, over 450 life science trainees attended the inaugural Life Sciences Career Expo (LSCE): Pathways to Success, a national, virtual, multi-day, careers conference. The Expo, organized and facilitated by the Life Sciences Career Development Society (LSCDS), the University of Toronto, and the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences (CSMB) aimed to bring together students, postdoctoral fellows, educators, researchers, industry partners, and government stakeholders to educate trainees about diverse career opportunities.

Spanning three weeks, the Expo covered careers from management consulting to science communication and biomedical research. In addition to panel discussions and company spotlights that highlighted various industries, the conference also hosted professional skills workshops, job simulations, and networking events. Using the Whova platform, registrants could browse the conference program, connect with fellow attendees and panelists using community boards and direct messaging, and curate their own agenda by selecting from concurrent events. “We picked Whova because [of] its cost-effectiveness and rich features,” explains Kevin Kuang, LSCE IT & Webmaster.

The organizers strived to create an accessible conference, which was made easier with a virtual platform. Hosting the conference online lowered costs and extended the reach of the event nation-wide, with 42% of attendees affiliated with universities outside of Toronto.

A wide range of trainees at diverse career stages were in attendance. “We wanted it to be useful for trainees at any point in their career journey,” noted the event Co-Lead, Alaa Alsaafin. She explained that trainees in the early stages of career exploration, for example, could attend career panels and job simulations to learn about their options. Whereas, those nearing the job search stage could attend company spotlights, professional skills workshops, and leverage the networking components of the conference.

The conference offered eight session types, with the keynote panels gaining the most attendance. During the keynote panel ‘Transitioning Successfully from School to Work’, industry and academic professionals shared their career stories and offered advice for graduate students. Collectively, they advised students to critically reflect on their own interests, aptitudes, and skill gaps throughout graduate school in order to guide their career planning. During weekly career panels, professionals from academia, the public and private sectors, as well as biotech and pharmaceutical R&D spoke about their career journeys and current roles. A common thread between panelists was the non-linear nature of their career paths and the importance of maintaining a growth-mindset.

The job simulations program provided a unique opportunity for trainees to experience day-to-day tasks associated with different industries. For example, in the two-part Medical Affairs simulation led by Dr. Bruce Seet, Director of Medical Affairs at Sanofi Pasteur, participants were tasked with comparing and contrasting the product monographs of two active Covid-19 vaccines. Participants also received an overview of the field, a virtual walk-through of a day-in-the-life as a medical affairs director, as well as opportunities to network and discuss their findings in breakout sessions. Seet advised those interested in a medical affairs career to hone in on their interpersonal, communication, and strategic-thinking skills. Medical Affairs was the most popular job simulation, followed by Healthcare Investment Banking and Consulting.

Ample networking opportunities were incorporated into the conference program, including sessions designed for networking directly with potential employers. Virtual company booths allowed attendees to live-chat with company representatives and browse job postings. Likewise, informational interviews afforded attendees one-on-one networking opportunities with specific companies to learn about company culture, hiring processes, and ways to get involved. Using the Whova portal, attendees could also participate in open networking where they were randomly shuffled into virtual tables to engage in meaningful dialogue with other trainees.

The conference culminated in the Interactive Networking Finale, facilitated by Dr. Nana Lee, during which attendees personalized their career interests and mentorship experiences in a shared Google sheet. Breakout rooms were then organized so that attendees could suggest connections for each other based on the Google spreadsheet and their own personal network, facilitating strategic network expansion.

After a year of online programming, a virtual careers conference may sound daunting. Yet with careful planning, the LSCE managed to remain approachable and highly informative, with over 90% of survey respondents reporting that they would recommend LSCE to a colleague. As the inaugural event, we look forward to watching LSCE improve and grow with continued feedback.

LSCE was organized by graduate students: Jenna van Leeuwen, Alaa Alsaafin, Maria Mercado and Kevin Kuang, and faculty members: Drs. Reinhart Reithmeier, Nana Lee, Stavroula Andreopoulos and Walid A. Houry.