BGS: Furthering Opportunities for Students Who Love Science
Director Kelly Jordan-Sciutto, PhD, on the power of philanthropy, diversity, and inclusion on the next generation of scientific leaders
Welcome to the summer 2018 edition of The Dish! After my first full year — plus a few months — as BGS Director, please accept my thanks for all of your support throughout this fruitful year of keeping Penn at the forefront of biomedical graduate education.
It is my privilege to update you on recent developments at BGS. We are wrapping up admissions season and are excited to be welcoming 127 students to campus in the fall. I look forward to being able to tell you more about this outstanding new class of students later this year.
We continually strive to open doors and expand prospects to students from all backgrounds who want to pursue their love of science. Diversity and inclusion are important goals as we complete the current slate of admission applications. To give you a fuller picture of the breadth and depth of this high-priority mission, we are featuring Dr. Arnaldo Diaz Vazquez, Director of Recruitment and Retention of Diversity Scholars, later in this issue.
A little background: Originally from Puerto Rico, Arnaldo was a first-generation college student who had the opportunity to participate in a formative summer internship through Columbia University. Through this and similar experiences, he went on to Texas A&M to become the first in his family to earn a PhD. He completed post-doctoral training here at Penn, and today serves as a member of the Office of Research & Diversity Training, Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology, and Assistant Dean for Research Training Programs.
In his role, Arnaldo is a true champion of several BGS diversity initiatives, including pipeline programs to steer students from underrepresented minority groups into biomedical careers, and we’re working together to help to diversify the biomedical workforce, our own faculty pool, the student population in biomedical graduate education, and the broader population of medical scientists. I invite you to read more about the incredible success he has encountered through his programs later in the issue.
On a related note, I’m thrilled that we’re now also able to offer some novel approaches to help nurture career development for all of our students. The new BGS Career Development Website features sections on core competencies, potential career paths for which PhD biomedical training can be useful, BGS alumni career outcomes, and a career blog. Services like these are key to helping our PhD students think critically about their futures, as well as get exposure to new industries or career paths they might not have otherwise considered.
Hearing directly from BGS alumni is another important way for current students to model their own careers, and partnership with the alumni community can yield untold networking opportunities. In this issue, M. Morgan Taylor, GR’17, shares her thoughts on her time at Penn, her research interests, and her plans on remaining engaged with the BGS family.
In addition to serving as mentors and guides for our students, alumni play another significant role: demonstrating the power of philanthropy to support outstanding students and the next generation of biomedical researchers. In this issue, we spotlight alumni who have made recent gifts and share their Penn stories. Perelman School of Medicine alumnus Lawrence Chan and his wife, Danchen Gao, shared their inspiring story of establishing the Lawrence S. Chan, M’85 and Danchen Gao, PhD Endowed Fellowship Fund here at BGS. You can learn more about their lifelong commitment to science.
Also, I encourage you to take a moment during the next few months to offer your thoughts on The Dish and what you want to know about BGS activities – we’d love to hear from you! One of the ways that you can help BGS continue as a leader in biomedical education is to provide your ideas as to how we can better adapt to the realities of the rapidly evolving landscape in the biomedical sciences. I hope you enjoy this issue of The Dish, and have a happy and healthy summer!
Kelly Jordan-Sciutto, PhD
Chair and Professor, Department of Pathology, Penn School of Dental Medicine
Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Director, Biomedical Graduate Studies, Perelman School of Medicine
Recent Graduate Spotlight: M. Morgan Taylor, GR’17
The First to Settle a 20-Year Controversy — and Looking for Her Next Challenge
BGS alumna M. Morgan Taylor, GR’17, became a scientist when she was just three years old – more specifically, she made her first scientific observation: women in her family were left-handed, and men, right-handed. Her hypothesis? All women were left-handed and all men were right-handed. As she worked to demystify the world around her, her additional observations eventually proved this first hypothesis wrong, but math and science continued to intrigue her as she entered high school.
Solving puzzles remains Morgan’s focus as a post-doctoral fellow at Penn, where her research was the first to resolve a two decade-long argument about the processing of information within the visual cortex: how could so few inhibitory neurons regulate the large number of excitatory neurons in the brain? As someone who is stimulated by real-world results, Morgan is excited that her work could one day have implications for numerous central nervous system disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, as well as more immediate applications in computer modeling and processing of information. She shared more about her BGS experience in a conversation with The Dish.
Q: Let’s start with this early “problem”: How did you decide to pursue your scientific interest through a doctoral degree?
A: As an undergraduate at Yale, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduating. I was becoming interested in where thoughts and ideas come from, so I enrolled in a neuroscience class. Then I took time after college to work in a lab. Eventually, I spoke with an MD/PhD graduate about his experience: the MD side allowing one to make a difference every day for patients, while a PhD was more about making a difference in the longer-term that might have grander effects ― the latter really appealed to me.
Q: So what made your Penn BGS experience special?
A: It was the community of people in the Neuroscience Graduate Group (NGG), in particular. A PhD is a challenging path for everyone, testing your mettle at times. I know the support of BGS and the NGG, from the other grad students to the administration, was crucial to my success.
That support was vital during years 3 and 4, which were the most challenging time in my studies: getting a research project off the ground, and then feeling like nothing seemed to be working for a while. I felt a lot of stress deciding to switch projects — encountering my fair share of imposter syndrome — until I experienced the reward of learning that such struggles and initial failures are inevitable in science. “It’s not you, it’s science,” was a helpful refrain among my classmates until the research ultimately clicked.
Q: What were some of your favorite aspects or achievements as a BGS student?
A: I helped found and then served as co-chair of Graduate Leadership for Initiatives and Activities (GLIA) for NGG, designed to oversee extracurricular activities — and generously supported by the administration. At GLIA, I was active in developing K-12 outreach programs, instituting career development and professional skills building programs, and writing and co-editing a neuroscience primer for high school students that was published on Amazon. The outreach efforts were especially rewarding: getting to work with local elementary and high school students and making a tangible, observable difference in their education.
Q: Dr. Diego Contreras was your mentor here at Penn. What impact did he have on your education and on your choice for next steps?
A: Diego gave a dynamic lecture in one of my first-year classes, and a group of us took him out for happy hour and talked about life and consciousness. I chose to join his lab because of our rapport and mutual respect. He treated his students as scientific peers, and balks at being considered an “expert” or “authority” on anything — despite his very real expertise.
Recently, he’s helped me realize and accept that a grad student can develop even deeper expertise than the PI on certain points. He’s reinforced my self-confidence because I can see he values me as a real scientist.
So I now have an itch to do something that will have relatively immediate, real-world implications. This is a change from my appreciation of the slower effects one can deliver from a PhD, but I think my research is ready to take the next step. I’ve accepted a position in the Insight Health Data Science Fellows Program in Boston, which will give me the skills to work with “Big Data” in the health science industry. I hope to stay in neuroscience, just not in a traditional academic setting.
Q: Tell us about your neural circuitry research as a post-doc at Penn. How would you expand on this work, through a fellowship or otherwise?
A: I got on the path of computational neuroscience late in my PhD, when I was awarded a Chateaubriand Fellowship, which is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in France. I was able to collaborate with a colleague of Diego’s in Paris on computational models, and took an online machine learning course there. My current post-doctoral work involves exploring rules of network connectivity, using computational models, that can explain a host of experimental findings coming from Diego’s lab and others.
I hope future opportunities will help me further understand, from a mechanistic viewpoint, how to apply computer modeling to a network with many cells and how that works on a larger scale in organs and organ systems. In the long term, I would love to bridge neuroscience and artificial intelligence, possibly using machine learning approaches to explain how the brain functions. I’m excited to pursue machine learning further in the data science realm with Insight.
Q: As a recent alumna, what do you think will keep you connected to BGS as you establish your career?
A: The relationships that I formed with others in the NGG and BGS are for life, regardless of how far from Philly we may find ourselves. I will certainly also stay connected with faculty here because of their relationships with current students and help maintain and expand our professional networks. I think that GLIA’s RNA (Return of NGG Alumni) initiative for inviting its alumni, particularly recent grads, to return for reunions and talk about their experiences, really helps to tighten and maintain these networks — between classes and among alumni.
Program Spotlight: Dr. Arnaldo Diaz Vazquez on Building a Stronger Community through Diversity and Inclusion
Personal Experience Inspires a Mission to Broaden Opportunities
I have been privileged to establish and grow the Office of Research & Diversity Training over the last eight years. In many ways, the mission and I are an ideal match. I faced the same challenges that many of my students have encountered. I am a first-generation college student and, so far, the only person in my family to obtain a PhD. So, truly, it is a labor of love to ensure that BGS leads the way in creating opportunities for underrepresented minority students to succeed and excel in STEM education and careers.
Diversity is a major priority for Penn BGS, particularly because the biomedical research community has yet to reflect the actual diversity in the U.S.
But only 7.3% of STEM doctorates working as
professors were part of the URM community.
In 2010, underrepresented minorities (URM) made up
29.3% of the United States population.
Having faced many similar challenges and barriers, I’ve been harnessing my own experiences to better understand what we can do as an academic institution to support and empower these students to succeed. At BGS, we have improved our average URM enrollment:
The national average is approximately
Approximately 11% between 2009 and 2013
to 26% between 2014 and 2017.
Penn is also ahead of the curve when it comes to supporting students throughout their education, helping to reduce the number of students choosing to end their graduate studies before completing a PhD, which occurs in 50% of cases across disciplines. For example:
Nationally, the attrition rate
in life sciences is 38%.
The rate at which URM students end their
studies early here at BGS is only 15%.
One of the ways that we’re meeting the needs of URM students in STEM is through two wonderful programs: the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program (SUIP) and the Penn Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PennPREP). I encourage you to explore these websites to learn more about each of these growing programs, including admissions information.
Established in 1993, the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program (SUIP) is an immersive research experience for students interested in graduate study in the biomedical sciences. The program hosts approximately 30 college students, typically rising juniors or seniors, from across the U.S. each year. These students benefit from 10 weeks of full-time lab research, state-of-the-art research seminars, career counseling, and research and networking experiences at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium.
SUIP also provides a competitive stipend, on-campus housing, and transportation costs to enable all accepted students — ensuring they don’t have to sacrifice wages from a more traditional summer job or struggle to meet travel and housing costs. This program is open to any outstanding students, and we work hard to ensure we have the necessary infrastructure – like financial support – in place to reduce barriers to participation.
Interest in the program has grown during the last seven years, with 151 applications received in 2010 versus an impressive 592 last year. SUIP has served as a stepping stone for many students, with 30% of trainees returning to Penn and other SUIP students moving on to other leading institutions, including other Ivy League schools, MIT, UCSF, Johns Hopkins, and Rockefeller. Because of this program, more URM students are successfully going on to advanced degrees in biomedical sciences, and many of them are choosing Penn.
The Penn Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PennPREP) is a one- to two-year research experience for students with a bachelor’s degree who are interested in pursuing a PhD in biomedical sciences but lack the experience or expertise necessary for graduate school training. Each year, BGS identifies up to 10 URM scholars who, with the help of faculty mentors, develop skills in conducting research, critically evaluating that work and its impact, and delivering scientific presentations.
This dynamic program includes workshops in biostatistics, wet lab techniques, the responsible conduct of research, and critical analysis of scientific literature. Scholars also participate in a one-on-one workshop with a professional writing instructor, and meet weekly as a group to discuss scientific journal articles and research in their labs. Through PennPREP, scholars attend events like research seminars and conferences, retreats, standardized test prep courses, and social activities. They receive a competitive stipend, including health insurance.
Our team has worked hard to grow both the SUIP and PennPREP programs, but our growth can be accelerated with your help. With so many qualified applicants, we are striving to provide educational experiences to as many outstanding students as possible. I would like to invite you to join us in our mission to increase minority representation in life sciences by making a gift to these programs.
Finally, I have recently witnessed firsthand that building a strong community can lead to benefits far beyond our borders. That is why, as a native of Puerto Rico, I am proud to also highlight the Penn Helps Puerto Rico collaboration: an effort led by students from Puerto Rico to establish a relief fund in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. Many of these students are first-generation college students who received a public education, who seized this opportunity to make an impact and even took a service-oriented trip to the island after Hurricane Maria struck.
Several months later, thousands of Puerto Ricans are still without vital resources, and rebuilding efforts are still in their infancy. Our work is not yet done, and I want to personally invite you to join our commitment to the people of Puerto Rico by visiting the funding page here and consider supporting these efforts by making a contribution. Thank you for your support.
Arnaldo Diaz Vazquez, PhD
Assistant Dean for Research Training Programs, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Director of Recruitment and Retention of Diversity Scholars
Donor Spotlight: Lawrence S. Chan, MD, MHA, and Danchen Gao, PhD
Inspired by a Penn Education, the Couple Hopes to Help Foster Other Exceptional Biomedical Careers
Married for 20 years, Drs. Lawrence Chan and Danchen Gao have a shared love of science. They also have a shared love of Penn: Dr. Chan graduated from the School of Medicine in 1985, and the couple is deeply grateful for the personal and professional opportunities a Penn education have afforded Dr. Chan.
And so the couple established The Lawrence S. Chan, M’85 and Danchen Gao, PhD Endowed Fellowship Fund in the summer of 2017, and recently exceeded the original pledge, allowing the first award to be distributed in the fall of this year. This marks the first-ever endowed fellowship in the Biomedical Graduate Studies program, establishing ongoing, partial support of a PhD student each year. The donors credited the success to the Penn Medicine Development Office for facilitating flexibility on the donation agreement and making the fund useful so quickly. Dr. Chan, who is an endowed professor of dermatology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, joined his wife — Director of IP Strategy at AbbVie — for a conversation with The Dish.
Q: How did you begin the discussion of making a gift to establish a fellowship fund?
CHAN: Penn is always on my mind. For a while, I had been trying to figure out how best to say thanks to the School for preparing me for my career, and my wife and I agreed that a philanthropic gift was the right way to go about it. As we talked it through, we started realizing that basic science is the foundation for the practices of all medical specialties and medical discoveries. Even though I work in dermatology, I have a scientist’s heart, enjoy my lab time, and really think of myself as a scientist and teacher.
"As we talked it through, we started realizing that basic science is the foundation for the practices of all medical specialties and medical discoveries."
The more we talked about it, the more it felt right to support students in their pursuit of scientific inquiry. By working with Penn Medicine Development and Alumni Relations, we came to feel that a fellowship gift would make the largest impact possible.
Q: So what inspired each of you to go into the sciences?
GAO: I was born in Beijing, and paid attention to my father: an engineer and director in the Department of Commerce in the 1980s, working on new technology collaborations, travelling a great deal. He was a model of an interesting technical career. While growing up, I also noticed that China was changing after opening its door in the early 1980s, and there seemed to be new opportunities in science and technology for women.
Even though I loved both art and science, my parents recommended that I pursue the science education track for the stability. So I majored in environmental monitoring — a combination of environmental science and engineering — and pursued analytical chemistry initially for graduate studies in the U.S. in 1988. Later on, I discovered pharmaceutics and went on to earn a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry from the Pharmacy School at the University of Kansas.
CHAN: My mother was a nurse in Hong Kong, where I was born. We had many books at home — and I found medical books fascinating. When I came to the U.S. in the 1970s, I stayed with a friend who helped me get settled, and he really encouraged me to consider medicine as a career path. This reawakened my interest in science from my childhood.
Q: What were some of the most memorable aspects of your time here as a medical student? How has your Penn experience shaped your career?
CHAN: Academically, it was publishing my first paper. Personally, around the same time, I was also serving as managing editor of the School of Medicine yearbook. I was passionate about photography, and had some time to take pictures during the basic science years of my training. I was delighted to be able to use the photos in completing the layout of the yearbook.
Looking back, I am thankful for the dedicated faculty members and friendships of my classmates, as well as the flexible curriculum at the School. My research experience at Penn paved the way for me to publish three peer-reviewed papers before my residency in dermatology. It was also key to my success in obtaining multiple independent research grants from the NIH and Veterans Affairs Administration, which helped launch my career in academic medicine.
Q: What makes BGS a meaningful place to give? What advice would you give someone who may consider making a gift?
CHAN & GAO: Science comes from understanding how things work together, and we believe basic science is essential to medical knowledge and progress. BGS is the home of such knowledge and understanding at Penn ― and we feel it’s important for alumni to give back to the educational home that molded and nurtured them as academics, clinicians, scientists, and people. We sincerely hope that this endowment will help launch brilliant careers for many bright science students at Penn.
So we’d advise that alumni follow their hearts. Even a modest amount of money can make a significant impact on students’ educational journeys, serving as their spiritual vitamins, and allowing them to have the same excitement and revelations you probably experienced in school. At BGS, you are truly impacting the next generation of leading scientists.
CELL AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY GRADUATE GROUP:
Enjoy these photos from CAMB's second Pie a PI day held on March 14, 2018. This is an annual fundraising event for the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia (CFSP) hosted by the CAMB Student Newsletter.
CSFP is a privately-funded program that grants need-based scholarships to children from low-income Philadelphia families, all of which are awarded by random lottery. CSFP currently serves about 5,300 children enrolled at over 160 private and parochial schools, and was given a perfect score by CharityNavigator.
Picture credit to Kathleen O’Connor-Cooley and Gleb Bazilevsky.
GRADUATE GROUP IN EPIDEMIOLOGY AND BIOSTATISTICS:
Biostatistics Open House
September 14, 2018 @ 8:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
The Graduate Program in Biostatistics of the Graduate Group in Epidemiology and Biostatistics invites current students and recent BS and MS graduates to our Open House. Current faculty will introduce attendees to the field of biostatistics (statistics with applications to biomedical science) through presentations on our graduate program and current research. Students in mathematics, statistics, computer science, and engineering are especially encouraged to attend.
For questions please contact Catherine Vallejo at email@example.com or 215-573-3881.
CELL AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY GRADUATE GROUP:
Cell and Molecular Biology Symposium
October 5, 2018 @ 9:00 a.m.
Perelman Quadrangle, Penn Campus
Aaron D. Gitler, PhD
Professor of Genetics
If you would like to learn more about Penn Biomedical Graduate Studies, contact Torren Blair at firstname.lastname@example.org.