Jim Aiken, 71, was hired in 2003 as CEO and president of the Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Since he started, the Symposia has increased the number of annual conferences it holds by about 50 percent to almost 60 per year. It’s also grown its footprint. It used to just hold meetings in North America’s resort towns. It has since expanded them to locations across the globe in an effort to improve science and medicine in developing nations and regions. With an annual budget of $15 million, it’s one of the largest, if not the largest, nonprofit organization in Summit County.
Aiken grew up in Vermont. He received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Dartmouth. He earned a doctorate in pharmacology from University of Vermont and completed his post-doc education at Royal College of Surgeons of England.
He’s followed in his father’s footsteps in the fields of public health and art, making him a type of modern Renaissance man. After spending more than three decades as a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry, he found himself drawn to the nonprofit sector. He recently retired from the Symposia, and he’s planning to move with his wife to Seattle.
But I managed to catch up with him earlier this week at the Symposia office where he discussed the organization’s expansion, making the transition from corporate to nonprofit work and the similarities between art and scientific research.
Describe the transition from the end of your tenure to the new CEO.
Jane Peterson took over as new CEO in April. I’ll keep working during the transition, mainly on the international contacts I’ve made and to introduce her to our international colleagues. We recently went to Sweden to work on a future conference there. We’ll probably go to Japan soon.
Describe what the Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology does?
The Keystone Symposia has been around awhile. It started in 1972 in UCLA. It moved here in 1990. At the time it was a subsidiary of the Keystone Center. We became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1995. We’ve been kind of growing ever since.
The original idea of the Symposia (which comes from the Greek term meaning academic meeting with wine) is for people with ideas to come together and hopefully new knowledge can come from that. And in science, that type of interaction between scientists is extremely important. Not only is it a forum for scientists, but it also lets them talk in a less formal setting. A lot of these are held at ski resorts. You present a formal idea in the morning, and in the afternoon you might ride up a ski lift with a colleague and casually discuss scientific topics.
It creates a forum to have a diverse group of people. At first this meant senior scientists in academia and industry. And we’ve added students and trainees who might normally feel left out of such lofty discussions, but now they get to sit with premier scientists around a fire at a lodge and discuss how their thesis is progressing. In that respect it is like the ancient Greek symposia. New ideas for medicine and even improved crop science have come from our meetings.
Why have the Symposia conferences been so successful?
The programs we put on are very high quality. And we’re very well known for putting on the best meetings for the life sciences and our size category of several hundred people. The staff here is fantastic and they really know how to do everything right. Everything about the meeting is high quality.
Why did you enter the medical research field?
My father was a medical doctor. He practiced for a short time, then went into public health. For all the time I was growing up he was the health commissioner for the state of Vermont. It tuned me into the idea that maybe I wanted to be a doctor. The reasons he left private practice for public health were always in my mind when I started college and was in pre-med. I wasn’t always sure yet if I wanted to practice medicine. I got a summer job in a research lab, and I decided by sophomore year I was going into a Ph.D. program instead of med school.
How do we get more young people to choose a career in the sciences?
A lot of young people leave high school with an interest in science. There is a lot of finger pointing around the United States of why we don’t have more science majors. Some people say they need more effort in K through 12, but that’s not where they should point their fingers.
People are coming out of high school today just as interested in science as students were 50 years ago, but now they are armed with much more knowledge. Where they get lost is the first two years in college, where a lot of the science courses are boring and don’t simulate the excitement they had in science when they were younger. But if they get a good lab experience where they can learn the thrill of research — you know, when you come from work at the end of the and you’ve learned something no one else in the world knows — that’s exciting! Once you learn that, those people will stay in science. The focus of getting more young people in science should be in making the core classes more engaging and interesting. The real need for innovation is in the first couple years of college.
Why did you leave the private sector to work for a nonprofit?
I went into the pharmaceutical industry right after training. I assumed in the beginning I would enter the academic environment. But when I was finishing my post doc, the early 1970s, research support funds at a university were not so easy to come by. So I thought this might not be a bad time to get into the industry because the industry was really ramping up their research and discovery at the time. I gave it a shot, and I enjoyed it immensely.
It was exciting working in the pharmaceutical industry. I thought I would work in the industry forever. I worked in the industry for 32 years … (But) Phizer bought out the company I was working for, and I was about 60, so I started looking at some other options. A priority for my wife and I was to move somewhere where our kids would like to visit us. Within weeks, I got a call from someone asking if I was interested in the job at the Keystone Symposia. Within 30 seconds I knew this was a good fit. And the kids have visited so much we can hardly keep them away.
It’s been a really great experience to be here for 11 years in that position.
How did your background in private industry translate to the nonprofit sector?
I actually wasn’t sure. There were a lot of things that were new for me. During my years of research, I rarely, if ever, had to deal with a board of directors. Then, when I get here, it’s me working with the board for almost all the administration issues.
And another important aspect is fundraising. I’d never done fundraising before. I think once, a long time ago, I’d walked 25 miles for the March of Dimes. I had no experience in fundraising for a big organization. But as it turned out, I really liked fundraising. It’s a lot of fun. One of the reasons it was fun is because the reputation of Keystone Symposia was so high, when you contact people, and ask if you can come visit, they always say yes. That’s what makes fundraising a pleasure. You meet a lot of people and get to hear new ideas from people who really support what we are doing here.
Why was it important to grow the Symposia and add more conferences around the world?
When I arrived the board of directors was already enthusiastic about us expanding geographically where we did meetings. Historically, they’d all been in ski resorts between January and April. Not only did we expand the conference calendar from September through June, we decided we would start doing meetings outside North America. That was timely because science was really expanding worldwide. It was much different from when I first entered the field, and only a cluster of well-to-do countries were doing most of the science.
In 2005 we did our first meeting outside North America. It was in Singapore. Since then we’ve done 35 meeting outside North America. We’ve had them on every continent besides Antarctica. And we’ve incorporated programs that make them more globally focused. For example, the first year I came I established a connection with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That is still going strong. The biggest part of that program is to bring scientists from low- and middle-income countries, from Africa, South American and Asia, to our meetings wherever we are holding them.
It’s a fantastic program. For a lot of these young people it’s the first time they get to leave their home country. It then puts these doctors and scientists in direct contact with the researchers. These young doctors bring a different perspective to the conferences. They are in the field, working in less-than-ideal conditions, yet having to deal with major problems like AIDS or tuberculosis, while the researchers have just had to tackle these issues in the lab. It’s really enriched our meetings.
The plan going forward is we will probably hold more meetings outside the United States. It just makes sense considering the shape of science in the world right now.
What type of impact do you think these meetings have had for research and science in molecular and cellular biology?
That’s hard to evaluate. But we’ve done some surveys to see what kind of connections people make at these meetings. We were kind of stunned that 70 percent of people we surveyed said they had met someone who they would start a collaboration with. I was shocked it was that high. We then did a longitudinal study with the same respondents … and at 18 months, 63 percent confirmed they had indeed started a collaboration.
When people meet face to face they start collaborating. Scientific collaborations don’t start so easy from a phone call or an email. People want to sit down, talk to each other, get to know the person they are collaborating with.
A very high percentage also reported the meetings helped them achieve a research goal. A lot of participants also learned how to improve the efficiency of their labs by saving or extending their money. About 50 percent said they figured out how to save about $32,000. In total, about $32 million in a single year was able to be redirected to other efforts.
Our tagline is “accelerating life science discovery.” That’s the most important thing we do, is try to accelerate advancements in medicine. One of the biggest dilemmas in the pharmaceutical industry is trying to go from a discovery to the market. If you go from the entire process of finding a new target, locating a drug that will work and getting it on the market, it can take up to 20 years. The real objective of the organization is to accelerate those discoveries that lead to things that really benefit the world.
And we’re also trying to educate the next generation of scientists. When a young scientist can have lunch with a Nobel Prize winner, it’s going to have a big impact on that young person’s life.
What are you most proud of being involved in during your time at the Keystone Symposia?
There are two. The first is the global expansion of our meetings into Asian and African nations and bringing scientists from those countries to the U.S. When you see them interacting with U.S. researchers it makes you feel really good you could contribute to that.
The other thing relates to the staff here. When we started doing these global programs the staff started to look differently at their jobs. They weren’t just organizing meetings. They were helping improve science and medicine on a global level. They are changing the world. The staff here is very motivated. It’s a wonderful place to work. Teamwork here is great. And it existed before me. I was impressed by their high level of teamwork as soon as I started. It redefined what the word teamwork meant to me. It was a deeper level of teamwork than I ever saw in the pharmaceutical industry.
How did you manage to grow the Symposia, especially during the recession?
Attendance was growing up until the recession. But it’s kind of plateaued since then. We also received some stimulus funds to help for a couple years. But scientists are going to choose the meeting they can attend due to the quality of it. Since we operate at such as high level we never saw the drop-off a lot of other similar organizations might have had. The recession did slow down our globalization efforts, but that’s starting to pick back up again as the economy is.
How did you get involved in oil painting?
I’ve done some sort of art all my life. My father also was a painter. He didn’t have time to do it a lot, but he did oil painting while I was young, and I would watch him. I was always doing some sort of artwork. Even in college, although I majored in biology, I was only one course short of having an art major as well. I like to do it to relax. It’s satisfying. And I’ve sold some paintings as well, so I’ve made a little bit of money doing it.
Are there similarities between art and science?
There is a sense of experimenting. You can experiment when you cook, too. I like to cook, too. I don’t stick exactly to the recipe. I always do some experimenting. And art is the same way. There is a lot of learning and techniques, a lot of trial and error, just like laboratory experiments. People think they can’t draw or paint, maybe there is such a thing as talent, but 90 percent of it is experimenting and practice. It’s like searching for something new and different.
“People are coming out of high school today just as interested in science as students were 50 years ago ... Where they get lost is the first two years in college, where a lot of the science courses are boring and don’t simulate the excitement they had in science when they were younger.”