There’s nothing arbitrary about Jim Burns’ (MBA ’73) assortment of degrees: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biological sciences, an MBA and a doctorate in liberal studies, all crucial to medical innovation.
“Biology, marketing, finance, psychology, sociology—all part of developing state-of-the-art medical technology. You need to understand the biology behind medical advances, how to fund product development, the sociology of different patient populations and the psychology of people who are affected by it. It’s all integrated,” says Burns, a member of the advisory board for DePaul’s College of Science and Health (CSH). “Bringing these things together is critical to how science and technology are progressing to improve patient care.”
He should know. Originally planning to be a doctor, Burns instead became a strategic consultant, a health care venture capitalist, an entrepreneur and a chief executive officer focused on cutting-edge technologies in the health care and pharmaceutical industries. He credits his rise from humble lab assistant to leadership roles in companies such as Assurex Health Inc. and MedPointe Pharmaceuticals to the power of mentors.
A molecular biology teacher at the University of Illinois told Burns, then an indifferent undergraduate student, that he needed to get his act together and packed him off to a colleague who needed lab assistants. That colleague rose rapidly into university administration, taking Burns with him. Burns found himself managing first the lab, then the research, then drafting publications and finally overseeing the professor’s graduate assistants and student workers. A leader was born.
“I discovered that I like to translate the work from the inventor in the lab to the point where it can be applied in clinical practice,” says Burns, who shepherded numerous breakthroughs to the marketplace. Throughout his career, he was drawn to the intersection of technology, hard science, sociology and psychology.
Advances in medicine can’t be viewed in isolation from the people they are meant to help, he says. “Your genetics and epigenetics are affected by your experiences, sociological factors and your environment. These changes are so powerful that they can be passed down to your children and multiple generations thereafter.”
The college’s push to create more cross-department majors and courses is right on target, he says. “The disciplinary lines in science and medicine are becoming increasingly blurred. The interdisciplinary nature of work in major medical centers lies beyond traditional college concepts,” he says. “DePaul has the opportunity to push this arena forward.”
Likewise, he advises CSH students and alumni to pay careful attention to what they learn from classes and experiences outside their core discipline:
“Life is an amalgam. Everything is related. If you are curious and ask questions, then you will live an incredible life and make incredible contributions.”