From Physics to Pharma

Sylvie Ryckebusch (B.S. ’87, physics; B.S. ’87, mathematics) has never underestimated the value—or the challenges—of earning a physics degree.

“I think physics is the hardest subject really,” she explained. “It trains your problem-solving skills, the way you think and learning to work on difficult things. When you’ve spent years studying physics, I think it trains you well for many other lines of work.”Sylvie RyckebuschSylvie Ryckebusch

Ryckebusch applied these skills on a rewarding academic and professional path that took her from the research lab to the business world, and from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. Over the past 20 years, she built an impressive track record leading business development for biotech and pharmaceutical companies, negotiating complex research collaborations and licensing transactions, and specializing in everything from partnerships and corporate strategy to helping bring new therapeutics to market. 

Today, as chief business officer at BioInvent International in Lund, Sweden, Ryckebusch supports the company’s efforts to develop new antibody drugs for the treatment of cancer. And though she didn’t exactly plan it this way, she’s exactly where she wants to be.

“People always ask me, ‘How did you organize your career to end up in business development?’ because that’s a place where a lot of people want to be—in the pharma industry, and most particularly, in business development” she said. “Honestly it was mostly happenstance. One thing led to another and another and I ended up here, although what was important in making these career choices was the self-awareness along the way about what kind of work and environment I enjoyed.”

European roots and a strong work ethic

Growing up in Howard County, Maryland, Ryckebusch always felt a strong connection to her European roots. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from France before she was born. 

“My mother was a secretary at the World Bank and my father was a chef,” she explained. “He grew up during the war in very difficult times in northern France and had to be pulled out of school early to help support the family, so he became an apprentice in a restaurant. When I was growing up, he was working around the Washington area as a chef and had his own restaurant for a time in Ellicott City.”

With many of her relatives still living in France, Ryckebusch decided to spend her high school years there. Fluent in French, she was interested in many subjects, but her teachers pushed her to pursue her strengths in mathematics.

“If you’re good at science, people aren’t going to tell you that you should study English literature,” Ryckebusch said. “I was always good at math and science and in the schools in France, if you’re good in math they tell you that’s what you’ve got to do, they push you.”

Ryckebusch returned to the U.S. after high school and began college at the University of Maryland in 1983, taking on the challenges of a double degree in mathematics and physics. Raised with a strong work ethic, she was driven to keep doing more. 

“I made it really hard for myself,” she admitted. “I skipped the first-year courses, which I probably shouldn’t have done and I did a double-degree program, which would have been a five-year program, but I did it in four years. So, what I remember most from my UMD time is working really hard.”

In those intense academic years, Ryckebusch spent her summers working with a low-temperature physics group at Bell Labs. After graduating from UMD in 1987, she moved on to a Ph.D. program in computation and neural systems at Caltech. 

“My focus was understanding the control of locomotion by the neural system,” she explained. “I was, on the one side, building integrated circuits, transistors and capacitors, the circuits that modeled certain behaviors of neurons in the brain, and in parallel, I was doing actual experiments to identify neuronal circuits involved in locomotor functions.”

After earning her Ph.D. in 1994, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Brandeis University, Ryckebusch was ready for something new. 

“I had to weigh doing academic science for a career or at least the next six or seven years or starting something different, and I thought, I want a change,” she explained. “I like variety and I wanted to be in the real world, though I wasn’t really sure what the real world was.”

Encouraged by a friend, Ryckebusch joined the Harvard Business School as a postdoctoral researcher. There, she investigated business operations, developing case studies on companies all over the world, some of which are still taught at HBS today.

“I went to Japan, to Israel, all over the place, exploring particular issues related to businesses and the organization of their work and writing these up in case studies,” she recalled. “It was different and it was fun, and I fell into it very easily.”

From case studies to consulting

In 1996, Ryckebusch’s academic background, business research at Harvard and fluency in French helped her land a management consulting position at the Paris office of global consultants McKinsey & Company. The experience helped strengthen her skill set in corporate strategy and business development, but after four years, she realized she missed working with scientists and the intricacies of scientific problem-solving.

“I thought this has been fun and I learned so much, but it was very hard work and not really who I was” Ryckebusch explained. “I wanted to get back into a career closer to science.”

Hoping to apply her experience in both science and business, Ryckebusch joined Serono, a large Geneva, Switzerland-based biotech firm. She quickly realized it was the right place at the right time.

“I ended up in the very best possible place for me and I loved it,” she recalled. “You’re negotiating partnerships and alliances—pharma-pharma, pharma-biotech, biotech-academia alliances—and you have to have a good grasp of the science because you’re working on drug development. It was a business role that I’m still doing today over 20 years later.”

Pharmaceutical giant Merck eventually acquired Serono and shut down its Geneva office, but by then Ryckebusch had three kids in school and didn’t want to uproot her family. So, in 2012, she started her own consulting business. Based in Geneva, she worked with pharma and biotech clients, even finding time to teach a graduate-level pharmaceutical business development course at the Grenoble Ecole de Management.  

Then in early 2020, one of Ryckebusch’s clients, BioInvent, suggested that she join them full time as chief business officer.

“BioInvent is a super company, with very high quality science and promising therapeutic drug candidates. I was doing more and more work with them, and they said, ‘Why don’t you join us,’ and it just made sense,” Ryckebusch recalled. “So that’s what I’m doing now.”

Part of a bigger mission

As BioInvent’s chief business officer, Ryckebusch works remotely from her home in Geneva, leading business development efforts, building partnerships and research collaborations for drug development, as well as supporting the investor-backed company with financing and company strategy.

“It costs $800 or $900 million to develop a pharmaceutical product, so biotechs almost never take them to market on their own, you have to partner with a big pharma at some point,” she explained. “There’s a whole strategy around how you partner, when you partner and with whom.”

Ryckebusch takes pride in her role as part of BioInvent’s scientific work in cancer therapeutics. But she’s quick to note that she’s just one small part of a much bigger mission.

“I enjoy that feeling of collectively bringing something forward—we’re all cogs in a wheel,” she explained. “In the pharma industry, it takes 15 to 20 years to develop a drug and a lot of people like me contribute along the way.”

For Ryckebusch, making that kind of contribution means everything.

“It’s all about finding great drugs and developing them and pushing the frontiers of the science,” she reflected. “I really hope one of BioInvent’s products makes it to the market. I would be proud to be able to say a little bit of that came from me.”

Rehearsals, Recitals and Research

University of Maryland physics and astronomy dual-degree senior Delina Levine got her first introduction to music when she just was six years old, soon after she pestered her parents to sign her up for piano lessons. Delina LevineDelina Levine

As her fingers rhythmically tapped the black and white keys, Levine noticed that the sounds she created with the piano differed depending on the amount of force her hands exerted on the keys. Applying the piano’s pedals while she played created variations in the sounds she produced and while some chords harmonized, others didn’t. It wasn’t until years later that she learned why and how these changes influenced the music she played.

In middle school, her teacher asked the students to write a paper on any topic, so long as that topic tied back to math. Although Levine was skeptical, her teacher assured her that there was a mathematical connection to almost anything she could think of. 

“Of course, I chose to write about music for that assignment,” Levine recalled. “I wasn’t sure at first, but when I researched for the paper, I got to learn about the relationship between math, physics and music. What really struck me was how physics is so involved in music, especially with concepts like acoustics. It was then that I realized how important physics is when it comes to understanding how things work.”

After that assignment, Levine believed physics could be the key to satisfying her natural inquisitiveness about music, stars and outer space. At UMD, Levine’s trifecta of interests prompted her to pursue a dual degree in astronomy and physics in addition to a minor in music performance. 

“My first year here, I attended a class taught by Professor Bhatti that talked about the detection and analysis of dark matter. I remember that the class made a big impression on me,” Levine explained. “That was a big step for me into the overlap between physics and astronomy.”

Levine also participated in the 2020 Student Summer Theoretical Physics Research Session (SSTPRS), a program developed by Distinguished University Professor of Physics S. James Gates Jr. Designed to introduce undergraduates to the world of experimental physics research, SSTPRS provided Levine’s first opportunity to see real-world applications for the science she learned in the classroom. 

“We spent the first few weeks learning the math and physics needed for the calculations we needed to make later in the program,” said Levine. “That summer, I worked on supersymmetry projects with a group of other undergrads like me, and it gave me critical insight into research and all of the collaborative effort behind it.”

According to Levine, UMD’s Society of Physics Students (SPS) has also been one of the most instrumental parts of her journey to becoming a full-fledged researcher. As a member since 2019, Levine participated in exclusive behind-the-scenes lab tours led by professors and industry physicists, professional development workshops and training sessions, field trips to the campus nuclear reactor and movie nights. In her sophomore year, Levine served as SPS board communications officer. By fall 2022, she was elected president—taking a leadership role in the organization that guided her since the beginning of her journey in physics. 

“All the camaraderie and knowledge-sharing that I experienced with SPS inspired me to get more involved with its activities and leadership,” Levine said. “I just wanted to continue that tradition and remind my peers that we’re all in this together.”

"As SPS president, Delina is an inspiring leader,” said Donna Hammer, SPS faculty advisor and director of education for UMD’s Department of Physics. “Her vision for SPS includes providing the opportunity for every physics major to feel included, informed and supported.”

Off-campus, Levine puts the skills she developed at UMD into practice. She currently works as an undergraduate research assistant at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), where she studies gamma-ray bursts. Since she started her remote position with NAOJ in 2021, Levine has already written on gamma rays, their luminosity and their potential to be used as a way to measure cosmological distances. 

“Although my work at NAOJ is done online, the research environment I’m part of is incredibly diverse. My colleagues are from different time zones and countries all over the world—Italy, India, Japan, just to name a few. I also have a female principal investigator, which is still a rare occurrence in the world of physics and astronomy,” Levine said. “I see her as a role model and mentor, and I’d like to become someone like that in the future for other young scientists. What I’ve learned from NAOJ and also UMD makes me feel better equipped to tackle future challenges and goals that may come to me as a researcher."

Despite her busy schedule, Levine continues to make time for music. Over the years, she accompanied choirs and played with jazz bands, which she says helped her explore her talents beyond her classical training and develop additional layers of flexibility. In May 2022, Levine performed a piano recital at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to an audience full of her peers, something she hopes to do again before she graduates in May 2023. 

“Having these experiences with SPS, my music and my research is very fulfilling for me. I especially appreciate the collaborativeness, creativity and diversity of thought that all these parts of my life encourage,” Levine said. “As president of SPS, I really want to continue supporting my fellow physics students with more opportunities to support and learn from each other—just as SPS and my mentors have done for me.” 

UMD Physicists Hope to Strike Gold by Finding Dark Matter in an Old Mine

Nestled in the mountains of western South Dakota is the little town of Lead, which bills itself as “quaint” and “rough around the edges.” Visitors driving past the hair salon or dog park may never guess that an unusual—even otherworldly—experiment is happening a mile below the surface.

A research team that includes University of Maryland physics faculty members and graduate students hopes to lure a hypothesized particle from outer space to the town’s Sanford Underground Research Facility, housed in a former gold mine that operated at the height of the 1870s gold rush. 

More specifically, they are searching for WIMPs—weakly interacting massive particles which are thought to have formed when the universe was just a microsecond old. The research facility suits this type of search because the depth allows the absorption of cosmic rays, which would otherwise interfere with experiments.

If WIMPs are observed, they could hold clues to the nature of dark matter and structure of the universe, which remain some of the most perplexing problems in physics.

Just getting started
The UMD team is led by Physics Professor Carter Hall, who has been looking for dark matter for 15 years. Excited by the prospect of observing unexplained physical phenomena, Hall joined the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment, an earlier instrument at the Sanford Lab that attempted to detect dark matter from 2012 to 2016.

LUX was the most sensitive WIMP dark matter detector in the world until 2018. Its successor at Sanford, the new and improved LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment, launched last year. Hall believes LZ has even better odds of detecting or ruling out dark matter due to its significantly larger target. It’s specifically designed to search for WIMPs—a strong candidate for dark matter that, if proven to exist, could help account for the missing 85% of the universe’s mass.

Unlike experiments conducted at particle smashers like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, the LZ attempts to directly observe—rather than manufacture—dark matter. Anwar Bhatti, a research professor in UMD’s Department of Physics, said there are pros and cons to both approaches. He worked at the LHC from 2005 to 2013 and is now part of the LZ team at UMD.

Bhatti said the odds of finding irrefutable proof of WIMPs are slim, but he hopes previously undiscovered particles will show up in their experiment, leaving a trail of clues in their wake.

“There’s a chance we will see hints of dark matter, but whether it’s conclusive remains to be seen,” Bhatti said. 

UMD physics graduate students John Armstrong, Eli Mizrachi, and John Silk are also part of this experiment, and the team published its first set of results in July 2022 following a few months of data collection. No dark matter was detected, but their results show that the experiment is running smoothly. Researchers expect to continue collecting data for up to five years.

“That was just a little taste of the data,” Hall said. “It convinced us that the experiment is working well, and we were able to rule out certain types of WIMPs that had not been explored before. We’re currently the world’s most sensitive WIMP search.”

Sparks in the dark

These direct searches for dark matter can only be conducted underground because researchers need to eliminate surface-level cosmic radiation, which can muddle dark matter signals and make them easier to miss. 

“Here, on the surface of the Earth, we’re constantly being bathed in cosmic particles that are raining down upon us. Some of them have come from across the galaxy and some of them have come across the universe,” Hall explained. “Our experiment is about a mile underground, and that mile of rock absorbs almost all of those conventional cosmic rays. That means that we can look for some exotic component which doesn’t interact very much and would not be absorbed by the rock.”

In the LZ experiment, bursts of light are produced by particle collisions. Researchers then work backward, using the characteristics of these flashes of light to determine the type of particle.

The UMD research group calibrates the instrument that powers the LZ experiment, which involves preparing and injecting tritium—a radioactive form of hydrogen—into a liquefied form of xenon, an extremely dense gas. Once mixed, the radioactive mixture is pumped throughout the instrument, which is where the particle collisions can be observed.

The researchers then analyze the mixture’s decay to determine how the instrument responds to background events that are not dark matter. By process of elimination, the researchers learn the types of interactions are—and aren’t—important.

“That tells us what dark matter does not look like, so what we’re going to be looking for in the dark matter search data are events that don’t fit that pattern,” Hall said.

The UMD team also built, and now operates, two mass spectrometry systems that monitor xenon to ensure it isn’t poisoned by impurities like krypton, a gas found in the atmosphere. To detect dark matter scatterings, xenon must be extremely pure with no more than 100 parts per quadrillion of krypton.

Rewriting the physics playbook

The researchers will not know if they found dark matter until their next data set is released. This could take at least a year because they want the sensitivity of the second data set to significantly exceed that of the first, which requires a larger amount of data overall.

If detected, these WIMP particles would prompt a massive overhaul of the Standard Model of particle physics, which explains the fundamental forces of the universe. While this experiment could answer pressing questions about the universe, there is a good chance it will also create new ones. Hall thinks up-and-coming physicists will welcome that challenge. 

“It would mean that a lot of our basic ideas about the fundamental constituents of nature would need to be revised in one way or another,” Hall said. “Understanding how that would fit into particle physics as we know it would immediately become the big challenge for the next generation of particle physicists.”

Written by Emily Nunez

Taking the SMART Path

In 2021, when Isabelle Brooks left her home in Minnesota to study physics at the University of Maryland, she knew it would mean a big transition—from an all-girls high school with fewer than 500 students to a huge college campus with more than 40,000 students. It turned out to be even more exciting than she expected.

“It was definitely a culture shock,” Brooks recalled. “I told my roommate it was crazy to me that I kept seeing so many faces I didn’t recognize. I was around so many different people doing so many differIsabelle BrooksIsabelle Brooksent things—it was a really cool and exciting experience.”

Brooks’ experiences have exceeded her expectations in more ways than one, and although she’s only a sophomore she’s already charting her path toward a career in physics. One big boost in that direction came last year when she was awarded a Department of Defense SMART (Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation) Scholarship. 

SMART Scholars receive full tuition for up to five years and hands-on internship experience working directly with an experienced mentor at one of over 200 innovative laboratories across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Defense, plus a stipend and full-time employment with the Department of Defense after graduation. 

This summer, Brooks will intern at a U.S. Army facility in Maryland. 

“I’ll be working at Aberdeen Proving Ground with the Department of Defense,” Brooks said. “The lab I’ll be working with focuses on satellite communications and other innovative technologies for our armed forces. It’s super exciting.”

Physics in the family

Always a strong student, Brooks got an early introduction to physics thanks to her father who studied physics when he was in college.

“My dad was my biggest influence,” she explained. “He’s a patent attorney now and he works with a lot of science and technology, which has been super cool to watch as I’ve been growing up.”

Despite her interest in her dad’s work, Brooks wasn’t initially drawn to physics herself.

“My dad was always like, ‘It’s really important to study science,’ but I didn’t really want to,” Brooks recalled. “My freshman year in high school I actually did not do well in my introductory physics class at all, I didn’t like the content and I told my dad, ‘I’m never doing this.’”

All it took was one class to change her mind.

“In my senior year I ended up taking honors physics and I had the best, most supportive most influential professor who helped me understand that I am really good at this and there is an opportunity for me to do much more with it,” she said. “After that, it really made sense to me—I liked seeing how physics is playing out in the real world, and I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

So many possibilities

In the summer after Brooks’ first year at UMD, one of her relatives who works with the Defense Department encouraged her to apply for the SMART Scholarship to help her achieve her dream of a degree in physics. Months later she got the news she was hoping for.

“I was checking my inbox every day and when I saw the email I was shaking because I knew this had to be it,” she recalled. “When I opened the email and got the good news that I’d received the scholarship I just felt so honored. There are just so many possibilities that can come from this.”

Since then, regular check-in meetings with her SMART mentor James Mink, Chief of the Tactical Systems Branch (SATCOM) have helped Brooks learn more about the opportunities ahead and prepare for her summer internships. This summer—and every summer until she graduates—she’ll work directly with her mentor at the U.S. Army DEVCOM C5ISR Center - Aberdeen Proving Ground, gaining valuable hands-on experience and training that will prepare her for a full-time position there after graduation.

Brooks credits her participation in the FIRE (First-Year Innovation and Research Experience) program and her work with the Simulating Particle Detection research group for helping her build a strong foundation for her research, which has also focused on the challenges of quantum Fourier transforms—mathematical models that help to transform the signals between two different domains. 

She’s gained more confidence in herself and her abilities every step of the way.

“My parents always raised me to believe I could do anything I put my mind to, overcome any obstacle, but I think coming to such a big school, at first I wasn’t sure if I could really do this,” she recalled. “But now I just feel like I’ve opened up so much more confidence in myself and an awareness of my ability and my strength as a student, and that feels really good.”

Brooks continues to explore her fascination with physics in exciting and unexpected ways, thanks to professors who challenge and inspire her. Her favorite class this year was PHYS 235: The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

“It’s taught by Professor Sylvester Gates, who I think is the coolest person ever,” Brooks said. “I was so excited when I was in that class, but it was definitely hard. If I wasn’t a physics major, I think I’d be crying with the problem sets we had and the material we worked on, but that class and a lot of my physics classes have pushed me to think in new ways.”

It's been less than two years since Brooks came to UMD from a small Minnesota high school, but now as she pursues her passion for physics and looks ahead to the opportunities that will come with her SMART Scholarship, she’s thinking big.

“I just have this feeling that I can do a lot more with my life and my education than I ever grasped,” she explained. “I think with this Defense Department scholarship I’ll most likely pivot towards applied research and satellite communication technology, and knowing that the work I’ll be doing will actually support people who fight for our country is incredibly amazing. I can’t wait to make a difference.”

 

Written by Leslie Miller