Students Making Connections

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Let’s say you’re a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in bioengineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. You’ve got a solid background in the sciences. You’re studying at one of the world’s top ranked engineering institutions. And you’ve spent more late nights than you can remember working in a lab, maybe at the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, where you spend many hours focusing on the large impact of little things, like cells and molecules.

So, what waits on the other side of your thesis, besides a potential stint as a postdoc? What will your career look like? A new Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students (BBUGS) mentorship program is trying to help Georgia Tech students bring that picture into clearer focus.

“We started talking about internships and how graduate students get career advice, and we came to the conclusion that while there is this great community around the Petit Institute and BBUGS, it was kind of hard for us to access a lot of information and networking,” says Tom Bongiorno, who co-chairs the Education and Outreach committee for BBUGS. “So we came up with this mentorship program. It seems like a great way for both the student and the mentor to connect.”

Grad students are paired with mentors from academia, industry, or government – professionals who have a good handle on the different career paths available because, even for very smart people, the career element of the bio-equation can be tricky business.

“For example, I see a lot of people graduating with Ph.D.s from Georgia Tech who say they’re interested in going into industry without really understanding the different opportunities,” says Cynthia Sundell, director of life sciences industry collaborations for the Petit Institute. She’s serving as one of the first 25 mentors in the new BBUGS program. “That is something I can bring to a student, the perspective of someone who has worked 20 years in industry and knows how it’s organized and the different career paths.”

Sundell helped connect the BBUGS program to different industry partners, and the students also tapped into the Petit Institute’s Executive Advisory Board, several of whom have signed on to serve as mentors. The students, led by Bongiorno and Claire Segar (co-chair of BBUGS), sent out a request to potential mentors. Half of them agreed to help, and their professional background information was made available online to students.

“We set a time for signups online, and gave people time to review the list of mentors to see who was a good fit for them. Half of the mentors were gone within a minute,” says Segar, who is interested in an academic career and chose Arizona State professor Sarah Stabenfeldt as her mentor. “The great things about these mentors is they’ve had a lot of different experiences so they’ve transitioned between academia to industry, or the other way around. They can not only speak to what led them to where they are today in their careers, but for students who aren’t sure, they can help define their options.”

That’s exactly what Bongiorno is looking for with his mentor, Russ Bell, a member of the Executive Advisory Board and a Georgia Tech graduate who is retired after a long career in industry, during which he spearheaded the development of many diagnostic products in cancer and cardiovascular disease (among other things). “Getting that one-on-one mentorship from someone like Dr. Bell can really help you hone in on a specific career goal,” Bongiorno says. “Starting out you’re like, ‘oh yeah, industry sounds great.’ Narrowing that down is something else.”

Sundell totally agrees. She hears it all the time. “So many people who want to get into the pharmaceutical industry are thinking, ‘research.’ That’s too narrow. They can broaden their concept of what to think of as a job in industry,” she says. “Research and discovery is a small part of what pharma does.”

A mentor like Sundell can also speak to other challenges facing Ph.D.s thinking about a broader life picture.

“To women, I can speak to the life-work balance and the issues I’ve confronted in my career. I can share those real-life experiences with them, offer some perspective of what they can anticipate when they get to the job market, but also want to be married and have a family,” says Sundell, who has a PhD.

The mentorship program lasts a year and mentors meet with their students (mentees) about once a month, which Sundell says, “gives a student and mentor time to build a relationship. Which means she’s got time to open up to me, and I’ve got time to understand what gets her jazzed, so I can help guide her toward the proper career path.”



Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience



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