Bioengineers land prestigious internships, launch careers
Bioengineering, the relatively new and broad field loosely defined as applying engineering principals to biological or medical fields, is booming. MU bioengineering students are excelling in undergraduate research opportunities on campus and landing exciting internships and launching profitable and engaging careers after graduation. Of MU Engineering’s disciplines, bioengineering claims the greatest number of women students, comprising nearly 40 percent of the department’s majors. What follows is a sampling of what the future holds for a handful of them.
Bioengineering junior lands NASA internship
When Melissa Lokugamage first arrived at MU from her home in Kansas City, her plan was to major in biology as a pre-med student. But her undergraduate research experiences, which she began the summer after her freshman year, steered her in the direction of bioengineering. She is pleased with her choice and her coursework combined with her research associations have contributed to her success at landing an internship this summer at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
“I switched to biomedical engineering because I excelled in math and science, but I also did it because I was passionate about biotechnology,” the MU junior said. “I firmly believe it has a profound impact on our future.”
Lokugamage’s mentor is Donald Burke, professor of molecular microbiology & immunology in MU’s Biochemistry Department, who has a joint appointment in bioengineering. In Burke’s lab, she is conducting “origins of life research.”
“We’re looking at biological processes to see if RNA can produce similar networks [to DNA] in life before DNA,” Lokugamage said. “I am working with grad student [biochemistry Ph.D. candidate] Raghav Poudyal. He is one of the people who got a grant from NASA so it has been in the back of my mind as an option.”
At the Institute for Biological Engineering annual conference in St. Louis, Lokugamage met an engineer from NASA who encouraged her to apply for an internship and “see what happens,” which she promptly did. She learned in April that she was accepted and will spend the summer at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
“I chose NASA because I kind of always dreamed of working with space research and I never imagined that would be realistic until I met Dr. Burke and Raghav Poudyal. They gave me a lot of the motivations and opportunities to actually apply to somewhere as amazing as NASA,” Lokugamage said.
“I’ll be working on a biosensing project being deployed into space in 2018,” she said of her NASA research. “It’s about DNA/RNA degradation and repair mechanisms and how they affect humans.”
Lokugamage, who is minoring in women and gender studies, hasn’t limited her extracurricular activities to the lab. She is past-president of Mizzou’s student chapter of the Institute of Biological Engineering (IBE) and has been active in the Mizzou Alternative Breaks program.
Originally from Sri Lanka, Lokugamage’s mother is a computer programmer and her father is a computer engineer. She said they share her excitement about the NASA internship.
“Space has always been an interest of mine and I’m thrilled to get to pursue it,” she said.
Research intensive undergraduate experience prompts job offer
Graduating senior Emily Grayek said she always has been interested in the field of health and came to MU to study bioengineering. Two years of undergraduate research and a summer internship made her an appealing candidate when she got ready to join the workforce and Grayek has accepted a position with Epic Systems in Madison, Wisc.
As a sophomore, Grayek was accepted as a fellow in MU’s now discontinued Hughes Research Fellowship Program, which focuses on collaboration, computation and communication through participation in life science research in partnership with the School of Journalism.
“I worked in [bioengineering Assistant Professor] Heather Hunt’s lab,” Grayek said. “We had weekly meetings on campus with [Bond Life Sciences Director] Jack Schultz and partnered with J-School students. We were assigned writing projects — a blog — and produced a video.” Students in the program also received a stipend.
In Hunt’s lab, Grayek worked with optical sensors to detect bacteria, specifically Campylobacter jejuni, which causes food poisoning.
“I worked on it for two years,” Grayek said. “It was challenging but I liked learning about it. Unfortunately, there was not enough data for me to publish on it.
“Dr. Hunt was a great mentor,” she added.
During her junior and senior year, Grayek has worked for EternoGen, a biotech startup company launched by bioengineering Professor Sheila Grant. The company’s products are dermal fillers that reduce the signs of facial aging.
“I’ve been working with the regulatory and clinical department with [director of clinical and regulatory affairs] Rebecca Rone on different responses to regulatory bodies, working on clinical plans and with data,” she said. “We’re working on a pilot study for a couple of new areas. [EternoGen] is are getting close to being approved and moving into manufacturing.”
The summer after her junior year, Grayek did an internship with Smiths Medical, a medical device company headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., where she worked in the company’s Disposables Department.
“I was working on a new device in the company’s infusion product line. It was really interesting,” Grayek said. “I did a lot of testing with the sensing of air bubbles, one of the biggest nuisance areas.”
In addition to her strong foray into research at MU, Grayek also worked as a math tutor and a teaching assistant in the MU Medical Pharmacology and Physiology Department.
“It was a great experience and I met great people,” Grayek said of her research collaborations and experiences at MU. And when it came time to begin looking for a job, Grayek said she had little problem finding a fit.
“Someone at Epic Systems [healthcare software company] saw my resume and asked me to apply,” she said. She will begin work in August.
Epic boasts 190 million patient records. The company, founded by a woman, is employee-owned and developer led.
“I wasn’t sure if it’s what I wanted to do, but I truly believe that with a lot of the data — recording treatments and outcomes — it’s more preventative. I like that,” she said.
Cerner Corporation snags three graduating bioengineering seniors
Three University of Missouri bioengineering May 2016 graduates have landed jobs with Cerner Corporation, a company positioned at the intersection of health care and information technology, recognized for its ability to securely share data between disparate systems. The three, Lauren Kesselring, Alexis Planells and Claire Schroeder, will work as consulting analysts for the company.
“Typically, this will involve traveling to the clinical sites were [we] will meet with clients to assess their system and implement education on Cerner-specific software services,” Schroeder said. “By maximizing the efficiency of of technology in healthcare, the result will be a reduction in errors, unnecessary spending and an overall improvement of healthcare treatment, which in turn saves lives.”
All three women were top students at MU, engaged in various activities outside the classroom as well as excelling in their coursework.
“While I have been at Mizzou, I have been involved in undergraduate research and student organizations,” said Planells. “Both of these extracurricular activities have shaped me into a leader and a good communicator, which is what will make me a good consultant.”
Kesselring said she also attributes success at being chosen by Cerner to her extracurricular activities.
“I believe a big part of landing this position can be attributed to participating in undergraduate research, and the problem solving and leadership skills I gained through the experience,” she said.
Schroeder agrees. “One of the many great things about Mizzou is the opportunity students have to get involved and network,” she said. “Just as an example, this past school year I served as the co-president for the Engineers’ Club/St. Pat’s Board, under the expert guidance of [bioengineering Associate Professor] Dr. Borgelt, one of our faculty advisors. During this time, I learned a great deal about leadership and being able to facilitate participation and collaboration among a large group of peers to execute one of the largest and the oldest celebrations of Engineers’ Week in the country.
“The best attribute of an engineering degree from Mizzou is not only the education you receive, but the skills and abilities you gain outside of the classroom. The College of Engineering fosters an environment for well-rounded leaders, whom employers seek among applicants,” Schroeder added.
All three women have regularly been featured on the Dean’s List for their academic excellence. Planells was first author on a paper published as a result of her undergraduate research and Schroeder was active in Mizzou Alternative Breaks and was named the department’s outstanding senior.