Since emigrating from Syria at the age of five, I have personally experienced the uphill battle of obtaining health care coverage as a non-US citizen. My family, along with many other immigrant and low-income families, are often forced to choose between receiving care and prescription medicines or paying a stream of medical bills. My aversion to health care growing up, juxtaposed by the cost-free, quality care I received later in life as a US citizen, is why I want to work towards improving the health care system.

I studied Biology in undergrad and developed a strong interest in drug pricing and pharmaceutical management. I learned about value-based approaches to drug pricing and concluded that overseeing a mission-driven pharmaceutical company would provide me with the platform and the opportunity to lower prices and expand access to life-saving therapies.

After college, I joined a gene therapy company to apply my newly acquired knowledge of the health care industry to a biotechnology company led by creative thinkers with the mission of transformative care. In my first few weeks at the company, I had the opportunity to speak with parents and patient advocates for two ultra-rare diseases with no effective treatments. From these conversations, it became abundantly clear that driving pharmaceutical impact cannot occur exclusively through classroom theory or lab experimentation. Real change in health care demands deep empathy and face-to-face conversation as it is a uniquely straining experience to place all hope in a clinical trial when facing limited options.

Throughout my time working in biotech, I came to realize that having empathy, on a personal level, is the first step to achieving health care reform. I was initially attracted to Harvard’s MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences program because of the emphasis on ethical decision making, and ultimately chose the program with the goal of becoming an impactful biotechnology executive who is able to effectively deliver transformative therapies to patients in need. As a member of the first cohort of Harvard’s MS/MBA joint degree, I wanted to share four things you should know about this new program:

1. Students come from a variety of backgrounds

In my cohort of 11, I initially expected more than half to have worked in biotech. I was pleasantly surprised to see the variety in backgrounds. A few people, including myself, did come from a biotechnology company, but there were also people from life sciences consulting firms, research laboratories, medical device companies and larger pharmaceutical companies. This diversity is especially important for our small group cohort where we heavily draw from each other’s experiences and maintain a tight-knit community from which we can learn every day.

2. The program is for those passionate about health care and life sciences

I also expected that most people in my cohort would be solely interested in being a CEO of the next big biotech company. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although the entirety of my cohort is unified by our passion for healthcare and our strong interest in life sciences, we also are eager to explore various roles in the health care industry. I have not met one person who isn’t open to learning more about different subsections in healthcare, such as health tech, start-ups, pharmaceutical policy and more.

I did not feel any pressure to come into the program with an unequivocal conviction in my next step. Rather, I was encouraged to have multiple conversations with our faculty and my cohort to gain a better understanding of what kind of career I could be interested in. Currently, I am interested in exploring biotech careers in emerging markets, particularly in the MENA region, and plan to leverage my cohort and faculty to gain exposure to this niche area.

3. You don’t miss out on the MBA experience

The first question I get when I tell other MBAs that I am pursuing the MS/MBA in Biotech is: “Isn’t that so much additional work?” While two degrees definitely require more focus, I have not felt that the additional work was inhibitory or unmanageable. If you look at the MS/MBA Biotech curriculum, you can see that the majority of the first (or RC) year is dedicated to the MBA.  You are a part of a section, you have an MBA email and are included in all of the MBA-wide student events. I did not feel like I had missed out on anything – on the contrary, starting the MS a few weeks before starting the MBA felt like a gain. I had been on campus a month earlier than my MBA peers, I knew my cohort well, and had already completed an MS course so I felt better prepared to dive into the MBA cases. In the second (or EC) year, you are required to take several biotechnology and therapeutics courses, but for the most part you have a wide range of science electives to choose from. I am particularly interested in bioethics and regenerative biology, so I plan to take courses from those subsections of science electives.

4. The professors are incredibly impressive and become your trusted advisors

This was the first thing I noticed during our orientation. The faculty for this program have widespread experiences in health care, and have truly been pioneers in their field. You can read more about our three faculty members here, but the gist is that they are founders of prominent life sciences companies, advisors at top VC firms, and health care policy reformists.

When I first was accepted to the joint degree program, I was absolutely thrilled. But, I also had some questions. I reached out to two of the faculty members and had one-on-one chats about what I envisioned for my career and how I could make a positive impact in health care. The professors were candid and helpful - from those conversations, it became clear that they would become trusted advisors throughout my two years at Harvard. I am looking forward to continuing to gain insights from the faculty as the year progresses and I start to explore internships and long-term career options.

Understanding patient stories was a catalyst for my aspiration to change the traditional patient journey in life sciences. I pursued the Harvard MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences joint degree to learn to apply ethical decision making to a multitude of real business issues around new therapeutics and models. Others may pursue the degree for an entirely different reason, but I am confident that the program will, across the board, facilitate the leadership skills necessary to build and run health care businesses that defy traditional standards.