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Choosing the PhD Over Other Options

I can’t say that I’ve always known what I wanted to be when I grew up. Even today, hopefully a year away from finishing a PhD in bioengineering, I have not completely figured out my next steps after graduation but after almost five years at Pitt, I feel prepared to build a career after graduate school. However, as with many students, I’ve struggled with the daunting question of ‘what comes next.’

I hadn’t even heard of biomedical engineering when I first started my undergraduate degree but around my junior year a few public science articles featuring bioengineering research caught my attention. I knew I wanted to be involved somehow in the biotech field. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology in 2011 which gave me an understanding of musculoskeletal anatomy, neuroanatomy, and physiology but I didn’t have math, engineering, or cellular biology. I actually took a year of undergraduate bioengineering courses before applying to the professional master’s program here at Pitt. My plan was to get a professional master’s degree and enter industry as a bioengineer as quickly as possible. I offered to work or volunteer at a number of labs at Pitt and ended up working a summer before graduate school with Dr. Bryan Brown. At the end of that summer, Dr. Brown offered a more permanent position which also led to an offer to sponsor my PhD after graduating with a Master’s of Science two and a half years later.

The PhD hadn’t been part of my original plan nor had I originally thought it to be a possibility. However, I was starting to seriously take charge of my career path and recognized that the PhD held greater potential than where I currently stood. I was starting to plan an answer to the former question, ‘what comes next.’ The first hurdle was understanding the opportunities available and then making sure I was developing the skills required to be a competitive candidate by the time I would be entering the job market. The unfortunate truth is that you cannot assume that because you earned your PhD you are entitled to a job. Preparing for your next career move, whether it is towards academics or industry, is not a trivial task and will take a significant time investment. I choose to continue on with my PhD not because of Pitt’s strong academic program but because of the entrepreneurial and translational activities and opportunities offered at Pitt. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the first and second gear workshops, the Well’s Student Entrepreneurship competition, benchtop to bedside translation course, Fourth River Consulting, Biomedical Breakfast networking, among others. When I’m ready to enter the job market, it won’t be my PhD that sets me apart from the competition; it will be activities that I have had the opportunity to participate in since coming to the University of Pittsburgh. I strongly encourage any graduate students that are considering leaving academia to make time for professional development activities, explore your options, and start planning early.



Social Events

Social Hour

This summer’s BMES social events are focused on exploring Pittsburgh’s colorful city. To kick-off the start of summer the bioengineering graduates checked out a new venue, The Abbey on Butler Street. The Abbey is located in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh (aka the hipster neighborhood). Remolded from an old funeral home, the Abbey is not only a restaurant, but a coffee house and full-service bar with a patio. The Abbey offers a great environment while hosting multi-purpose events. Over 30 bioengineering students came to socialize and enjoy some amazing appetizers. The Abbey is definitely a place to stop in for a peak while exploring the Lawrenceville neighborhood.

Brewery Tour

In June, the bioengineers toured Penn Brewery. Penn Brewery is Pittsburgh’s oldest and largest brewery, located in the North Side’s Deutschtown neighborhood. An experienced brewer gave a brief history of Penn Brewery and guided us through the stages of creating their beer. From milling to mashing, boiling to fermentation, and finally to bottling, we got to see it all! Those interested in checking out this tour are able to purchase tickets online from Penn Brewery. And don’t forget to relax in their beautiful beer garden and try some authentic “Old World” dishes such as schnitzel, potato pancakes and goulash.

Kayaking

In the midst of summer, the bioengineers cooled off by kayaking on the Pittsburgh rivers. Pittsburgh is boarded by two rivers, the Allegheny River on the upper end and the Monongahela River on the lower end. At Point State Park, the two rivers come together and end, but begin the start of the Ohio River. All this water in combination with Pittsburgh’s steel industry resulted in 446 bridges! No wonder Pittsburgh is known as the “City of Bridges.” On this kayaking voyage, the bioengineers traveled down the Allegheny River to Point State Park. Along the way, we didn’t just go under many bridges, but passed PNC Park, home of the Pirates (MLB team) and Heinz field, home of the Steelers (NFL team). Everyone had a blast and enjoyed the beautiful view of the city!



Wish You Were Here

Greetings from the DMV! That’s short for the Washington DC area (DC, Maryland, Virginia). As a proud alumnus of Pitt BioE, I was honored when Pitt BMES invited me to write a short article about what I’m doing and how I got there.

I currently work as a device reviewer at the Center for Devices and Radiologic Health (CDRH), part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Device reviewers help to protect and promote public health by reviewing medical device submissions, including applications to market new medical devices in the U.S. My common day-to-day work responsibilities include reviewing the methods, results, and rationales provided in medical device submissions; assembling and managing teams of experts; and communicating with device manufacturers. I frequently use my technical background while reviewing submissions, but soft skills are equally important in this job. The top three non-technical skills I use are project management, communication (oral and written), and consensus building.

To me, review work is fast-paced and challenging, but also very rewarding. In addition to the rewards of constant mental stimulation, it feels great to do work that helps patients directly, and can have large impact on the medical device ecosystem. Pathways to employment in biomedical engineering are usually unusual, and mine is no exception. I was a typical BioE PhD student at Pitt until the end of my fourth year, when I took up my first student leadership position as an officer in the Pitt BMES Graduate Student Chapter. By helping the chapter to build some bold new programs, I met many new friends and mentors across Pitt, CMU, Duquesne, and in the medical device industries of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Importantly, as my network and leadership experience grew, I did my best to balance it all with my dissertation research. In the end, I needed all of it to land my first position after graduation as an AIMBE Scholar (a type of policy fellowship) at FDA. The program was seeking a combination of academic excellence, leadership experience, and soft skills. This same combination of skills helped me land my current position as a device reviewer at FDA.

My journey from Pitt to FDA was tortuous and challenging at times, but also fun and well worth it. In addition to enjoying my position at FDA, I also can’t get enough of the city. DC food is incredible, and the city is full of ambitious young professionals like us – including many scientists. There are many great jobs for BioEs out here, but that’s another story. Just remember that things are great in the DMV. I hope you’ll consider it for your next stop after graduation!

Disclaimer: The content of this article represent the views of Robert A. Allen by himself, and do not necessarily reflect those of the FDA.



Schaab Memorial Tournament 2016

On the last Sunday of July, we headed west to Penn Township Municipal Park softball field, in Harrison City. The weather was cool and pleasant; the thunderstorm passed the day before, leaving the fragrance of the grass in the air. On such a nice morning, which would be suitable for a picnic, we were unusually nervous. It could be the unfamiliarity to softball or lacking of an official team practice, we were all awkwardly silent thinking of the upcoming softball games. Luckily, some of us played the game last year, and some had several years of experience with either baseball or softball. Although with the nervousness, the sense of security exuded by the experienced players gradually soothed the other teammates. Everyone on our team started to warm-up and prepared for the defense position of the games.

Starting from the first year that Schaab Memorial Tournament came out five years ago, BMES Pitt Chapter has always been part of it. The scale of the tournament had grown with more than 25 teams, composed of people around the Greater Pittsburgh area who like softball. The reason why this tournament attracts so many people, besides everyone’s enthusiasm for softball, is the story behind it.

Gun violence and its consequences has always been a problematic issue worthy of discussion. The initiation of Schaab Memorial Tournament is related to one of the sad stories about gun violence. During the afternoon of March 8, 2012, gun shots cut across the silent peace in Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, followed by a panicked crowd. The gunman was shot and killed by University of Pittsburgh Police, but sadly, he had already injured six people and killed one. When Mary Schaab watched this on the TV news while she was at home, she remained calm although being horrified, because she knew her son, Michael, was working on a different floor from where the gun shots happened. Unfortunately, Michael happened to come back to work from his lunch break and passed through the lobby, where the bullet took this beloved young man’s life. When the police came to Mary that night, she collapsed and faced the brutal truth that her son would not come home again. For Mary, it was even harder to process this sad news because she just lost her daughter, Michael’s sister, Nancy, two years ago, because of gun violence. The death of Michael and Nancy hit the Schaab family hard; nevertheless, their courage made them stay strong, and turned the despair into hope. There is no better way to cherish the memory of beloved Michael and Nancy than playing their favorite sport. Upholding this idea, the Schaab Foundation, run by the family and friends, organized the Memorial Softball Game, raising money for donations to local charity groups in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

Back on the field, our first game started in a tight spot; the opponents were apparently more familiar with the sport than us and we seemed to need more time to warm-up. One hit after another, we watched players on the other team run back to home base one by one but we hadn’t scored a run yet. In the end, we lost our first game to our opponents hands down. “How bad could it be for the rest of the games compared to what we just went through! Let’s just enjoy the game and forget about winning or losing.” Although none of us spoke the idea, everyone seemed to be sharing a similar thought by a more relaxed appearance on our faces after the first game. Just as the long journey of doing research, overcoming great obstacles and dealing with frustrations is our daily business; in this kind of harsh battlefield, we BioEs paved our way with optimism and the spirit of never-give-up. In our next two games, we brought ourselves into full gear. Lead by experienced players on the team, our on-base-percentage gradually increased. While we made our first run with a frozen hit, every team member cheered with spirit. After that, our attack was getting fierce and our defense getting stronger; finally, we beat the opposing team in our last game by two runs, claiming the long-awaited victory of BMES Pitt Chapter representative team.

“Sometimes, you don’t get over things. You just learn to live with the pain.” The Schaab family embrace the idea and bring it to a whole new level. Time flies, this softball tournament in memorial of Michael and Nancy is going to welcome its six-year history. This year, $14000 was raised and donated to a non-profit organization. “Love lasts,” is probably the best footnote of this meaningful event.



Investing Now - In Future Leaders of Pittsburgh's STEM Community

The Swanson School of Engineering recognizes the disparity of underrepresented student groups within STEM fields and, for this reason, has afforded diversity efforts impacting the local Pittsburgh community. Investing Now, a program at Pitt aimed at this endeavor, has educated students since 1988 on a myriad of disciplines while focusing specifically on teaching fundamentals of engineering and introducing specialized engineering fields. Rising tenth graders are enrolled in the bioengineering component of Investing Now, receiving two hours daily of lectures and activities throughout the five-week program which ends with a final project and presentation. This year, the group responsible for coordinating the Investing Now Bioengineering curriculum was comprised of bioengineering graduate students Sanjeev Khanna, Erika Pliner, Liza Bruk, and Chris Reyes as well as Abby Stahl in Cellular and Molecular Pathology of the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Graduate Program. In the first week, Investing Now students were introduced to the engineering design process as well as FDA regulation processes. The week culminated with a Medical Device Expo where current and former graduate students of the Bioengineering Department displayed various medical devices developed by Pitt researchers. Presenters included Noah Snyder and James Eles of Interphase Materials, Lisa Carey of Dr. James Antaki’s lab at CMU, Randy Lee representing the Visualization and Image Analysis Lab, Jonathan Duvall and Randy Williams from the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, Heather Bansbach representing the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, and Liza Bruk presenting the Collapsible Rehabilitation Walker developed in her undergraduate senior project.

During the second week, Abby and Chris instructed students on the fundamentals of tissue engineering through reverse engineering of the heart. Students learned about the anatomical features and characteristics of a porcine heart through dissection, after which they were introduced to the molecular and mechanical cues that determine cellular function and overall tissue characteristics. Students tested various mechanical properties of synthesized polymers to understand the characteristics of a tissue scaffold, and cellular function was studied by investigating the viability of baker’s yeast. At the end of the week, Investing Now students garnered a sense of the crosstalk among cells, signals, and scaffolds in tissue engineering and the current need for artificial organs.

Biomechanics was the focus of the third week, led by Erika, during which students learned about the significance of biomechanics in studying human movement and in the development of new therapeutics. Students constructed dynamometers and tested their individual grip strength as a task for understanding the importance of biomechanics in ergonomics and occupational safety. An activity on ligaments and cartilage gave students a better understanding of the musculoskeletal system. Students toured the Human Movement and Balance Lab and tested out the motion capture system and other equipment in the lab. They were also fortunate to take a field trip to Dr. Rich Debski’s Orthopedic Robotics Laboratory to learn more about injuries and injury prevention. This week taught students about the importance of biomechanics in terms of occupational safety, sports performance, and prosthetic development.

In the fourth week, students were taught by Sanjeev and Liza about Neural Engineering. The first day was focused on teaching students about vision by creating a circuit model of the visual system and discussing various diseases that can affect vision. Students also learned about brain computer interfaces and control of robotic limbs. They studied neural control of arm movement by creating a model in Simulink. Students were also able to view a live surgery implanting electrodes into a cockroach as part of the RoboRoach activity, followed by guiding the roach through a maze via a phone app. This led to a lively discussion on ethics of animal research. A concurrent activity involved students trying to stimulate nerves in Sanjeev’s arm. In this week, students were very involved and asked many insightful questions as they learned about applications of neural engineering.

The students finally presented their group projects at the end of the program. A poster symposium was held on July 28, 2016 where student groups presented their final projects and were judged by members of the bioengineering department. The top four groups received awards for their projects on schizophrenia, vision impairment due to albinism, ear imbalance, and paralysis. Overall, students gained an increased awareness and appreciation of bioengineering and its applications through this five-week program. At the completion of the program, many of the students expressed interest in pursuing future degrees in STEM fields, with a significant portion desiring to pursue careers in engineering. As instructors, we hope that we made an impact in the lives of these young individuals and leaders of our community, potentially providing inspiration for future Pitt bioengineering students.