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Germination Project inspires Philadelphia students to solve challenges, from the climate crisis to health disparities | 5 Questions

At a Penn Medicine Boot Camp, educators inspire kids to think long-term and do something in medicine, or maybe elsewhere. The goal is to inspire students to curate a fairer and more just world.

Naman Razdan, a 2019 fellow, engages at the Germination Project Boot Camp at Penn Medicine.
Naman Razdan, a 2019 fellow, engages at the Germination Project Boot Camp at Penn Medicine.Read moreHandout

The more Ajay Raju thought about it, the less he liked it.

Philadelphia was once such a leader. The cradle of democracy. The technological innovator. And so much more.

But the way he saw it, in the last 70 or 80 years, so many of the seeds planted in Philadelphia were uprooted and planted elsewhere. “Key pioneers of the microchip and the internet got their professional starts here in Philadelphia,” he said, “but it was in Silicon Valley that companies like Intel took root and changed the world as we know it.

“For generations now, Philadelphia has watched other cities, other regions, take the reins of technological innovation. For a host of reasons, we’ve lacked the foresight to nurture, retain and reward the talent and vision that are responsible for these great leaps forward.”

The prominent lawyer turned philanthropist began to wonder, “What if we sought out our region’s best and brightest at the 10th-grade level and injected them with a sense of purpose larger than themselves, a commitment longer in scope than their own life spans, and a charge to tackle some of the thorniest issues today to ensure that we as a region will continue to have a role in developing solutions to long-term problems?”

The Germination Project took root.

Raju spoke to us recently about his now-six-year-old initiative, and how he hopes it will transform medicine, the workforce, and overall progress in the region.

Tell us how it got started

As a sports fan, one thing I’ve long appreciated was that if you wanted to find out who’s the best high school basketball player in your city, you could. You can track up-and-coming sports prodigies from the jump. But if I asked you to find the next superstar future physician, the next Dr. Carl June, a world-renowned cancer cell researcher, you wouldn’t be able to. Unlike with sports, there is no rigorous, longitudinal mechanism for tracking the early careers of those who excel in math, science and civic leadership.

So we decided to create a platform where we find the most exceptional students in our region, who are clearly gifted, and project out. What if they could be recruited to make a long-term commitment to challenge, push and encourage each other to find solutions to some of the most difficult problems of our lifetime?

We choose about 15 to 20 fellows each year, grant them a lifetime fellowship, and expose them to the various touchstones of our contemporary society. We bring them to the New York Stock Exchange, Christie’s, the Met, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We also expose them to our toughest challenges, from the climate crisis to wealth and health disparities.

Each year, Penn Medicine hosts a boot camp for Germination Project, where the students get an intensive, hands-on education from some of our region’s most visionary minds across a host of disciplines.

This is not an original idea. When we were competing with the Germans to create the atomic bomb, we had the Manhattan Project. During the space race with the Soviets, it was Project Mercury. What those endeavors had in common was twofold: first, an obsession with pushing the envelope of technology and innovation, not for the sake of profit, but for the sake of proving that humanity is capable of seemingly impossible things; and second, those initiatives were inherently and deeply collaborative — neither was the product of a single mind or ego, but of groups working together in concert toward a shared goal.

These are precisely the traits that the Germination Project adheres and aspires to.

Isn’t that what regular education does?

In a larger sense, yes, the Germination Project is absolutely an educational initiative; we’re seeking to awaken the learner within each of our fellows, but we also teach them how to be super leaders through collaboration. Essentially, the Germination Project says to the next generation of physicists, biochemists, financiers and policy makers, “You guys collaborate. Unleash your collective maximum potential. Don’t just think about how to get the best job. But think about how you can work together to find a solution to the gravest problems of our time.”

Who is the project for? How does it work?

This project is a platform for elite kids who are being inspired to commit to a sense of purpose that is larger than themselves. The Germination Project is not necessarily for the student fellows; the Germination Project convenes the student fellows so that they can embark on a journey of service for the benefit of our society as a whole.

For example, the purpose of the annual boot camp at Penn Medicine is not just to teach the fellows about the latest cancer research, although it’s also that. The subtext is to show them how Penn Medicine, which was at the brink of bankruptcy in 1998, came up with a common vision and mission with a collection of the best and the brightest, and now it has become a 40-year sensation in biotech and medtech.

Our aim each summer is that the boot camp educators will inspire these kids to think long term and collectively do something in medicine, or maybe elsewhere — autonomous vehicles, sustainability, racial harmony, equity. The goal is to inspire our students to curate a fairer and more just world.

What are some of your fellows doing now?

Here’s one of many examples: Several of our fellows work with Penn Medicine’s Dr. David Fajgenbaum and his initiative, the Castleman Network. Named after the disease David contracted, it, among other things, works to find ways to repurpose existing drugs for new uses.

» READ MORE: The Penn doctor who wrote the book on fighting his own rare disease

A second example is more aspirational. This year’s boot camp included a presentation by the head of Penn’s trauma department, Dr. Patrick Kim. He noted a statistic that got everyone’s attention, that physical trauma and injury constitute the number one cause of death for 1- to 45-year-olds in this country.

Remember when nonprofits like the American Heart Association made CPR training popular to save lives affected by heart attacks. Well, what if we could recruit ordinary citizens to learn how to stop bleeding? What if we emphasized trauma care that could be delivered while we’re waiting for the ambulance? Now we have six fellows tracking down and examining how we can make trauma care accessible to the general public. This is the kind of elegant, simple initiative that recognizes our ability to deal with an under-addressed issue that affects us all.

What are the challenges of work in the future that you are trying to help today’s students meet?

One of the biggest problems for our region is retention of talent. The best and brightest eventually secure jobs after graduation in other more magnetic markets.

That statement may offend our politicians and business leaders here, but I ask a simple question: “If you are a 17-year-old physics prodigy focused on creating remote sensing LIDAR technology for autonomous vehicles, where do you submit your resume in Philadelphia?” I cannot think of a single company.

And look, if I am being unfair by selecting only one futuristic industry, how about decentralized financing? Cryptocurrency? Big data? Advanced manufacturing? Hydroponics? Rinse. Repeat.

Sure, Philadelphia is curating a biotech revolution in translational research for gene editing, gene therapy, mRNA and immuno-oncology. But other than that, we do not have futuristic industries growing and thriving in Philadelphia. The future of work will be dictated by those entrepreneurs and regions that are curating the industries of the future.

» READ MORE: These Penn scientists paved the way for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

The future of work is not about who can create the next billion-dollar company or who can make the most money. For every potential Steve Jobs, we want 10 innovators like Sister Mary Scullion, who thinks about the people who are most impacted by the growing disparity. That is the journey. The future of work is not to be tethered to the expectations of today; it’s to reimagine. It’s the ability to see beyond the horizon and build something that’s worth the journey.

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.