Graduate Students, Alumni Discuss Science Careers at First-Ever Retreat

Joshua Boger ‘73, P’06 P’09 speaks about “Building a 21st Century Pharmaceutical Company” during the student-organized Graduate Student Career Retreat March 29.
Posted 04/04/08
Students pursuing degrees in biology, molecular biology and biochemistry fields had the opportunity to discuss their future careers with Wesleyan alumni during the Graduate Student Career Retreat March 29.

The first-ever event, held at the Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown, allowed alumni to deliver a series of brief talks on their own careers and participate in panel discussions. In addition, graduate students held a poster session to share their own research with the invited guests.

“I consider this a ‘career banquet’ for our graduate students,” said Jan Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior and chair of the Biology Department. “There’s a diversity of career opportunities awaiting our graduates, and our alumni were eager to come back and speak about their careers.”

Wesleyan alumnus and trustee Josh Boger ‘73, P’06 P’09 was the retreat’s keynote speaker, and presented “Building a 21st Century Pharmaceutical Company” and “Building Your Future.” In the talks, Boger, the founder and CEO of biotechnology company Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass. discussed his company’s current research on developing an antiviral drug for Hepatitis C and increasing lung function in cystic fibrosis patients.

“To work in pharmaceuticals, you have to be passionately excited about it, and know that 99 out of 100 times you’re going to be wrong,” Boger said during his presentation. “You have to be science-driven and focus on unmet medical needs.”

Boger urged graduate students take chances to tackle the unknown and stay true to their personal values.

“Deciding what you’ll want to do is an individual decision and don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t do,” Boger advised. “I come into work every day smiling because I love what I do. I am happy. It is very important to work in a career that makes you happy.”

An additional 19 guests spoke on science-related careers in one of three sessions: academia, industry and alternative careers. Many of these speakers were Wesleyan alumni.

Jacek Majewski Ph.D ’99, assistant professor of human genetics at McGill University and the Genome Quebec Innovation Centre in Montreal, Canada, currently studies pre-mRNA processing among individuals and tissues. Fifteen years prior, Majewski was pursuing a completely different career path.

“I had degrees in physics and electrical engineering, and I really loved physics, but I didn’t like working, and I got confused about what to do next,” Majewski explained during the academia session. “I had a vision. I began thinking about things I liked. Nature, the environment, hiking and biology. And I ended up at Wesleyan working on a Ph.D in biology. Life is so undefined. You don’t always know what your goal is, but when you make a decision, make the most of it.”

No two alumni had similar career paths or current positions. Kristen Martins-Taylor, who received a Ph.D in molecular biology and biochemistry in 2007, is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut Health Center, where she studies embryonic stem cells. Judy Dunn, who received a Ph.D in biology in 1997, is a medical director at researched-based pharmaceutical company Sepracor in Marlborough, Mass., where she provides scientific input for therapeutic product development. Roopashree Narasimhaiah, who earned a Ph.D in biology in 2005, is an assistant director of development, corporate and foundation relations at Yale University and works as a liaison between the Yale School of Medicine and several corporations.

Stephen Saxe, who earned his Ph.D in molecular biology and biochemistry in 1985, spoke on alternative careers in the science. After working for the National Institutes of Health and teaching pharmacy classes as an assistant professor at Albany College, Saxe went on to obtain a law degree and now serves as associate general counsel in intellectual property at Alexion Pharmaceuticals in Cheshire, Conn.

“I decided to get out of the lab and into law,” Saxe explained. “Pharmaceutical companies need lawyers who can understand the science and write patents. It’s becoming more and more common for Ph.Ds to go off and become patent attorneys.”

About 15 graduate students made poster presentations at the event, sharing their research on topics such as budding yeast telomeres, interneuron death in epilepsy patients, neurons role in finch song production, and cell differentiation in chick and mouse embryonic development. (Pictured at left, Zainab Mithaiwala ’08, a prospective graduate student, examines a poster displaying graduate student research at the retreat.)

The event was funded by the Joseph and Matilda Melnick Research and Endowment Fund and organized by graduate students Noelle Ammon and Tina Motwani. Several other graduate students, faculty and staff helped plan and create the event.

About 70 students, faculty, alumni and guests attended the retreat.

“The event helped all of us feel reassured and inspired having heard about the paths the alumni took to reach their current occupations.” Ammon said. “Also, many students were able to set up network connections with alumni who are professors at various universities and scientists at several pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Overall, the retreat was a huge success.”

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor