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How my Co-ops Shaped my Career Path
Kaely Gallagher is a 5th year Bioengineering major concentrating in Cell and Tissue Engineering, previously a Mechanical Engineering major. She chose this because she was interested in both aerospace and medicine, and felt that mechanical engineering was a broad enough field that could set her future up for either path. Kaely explored her interest in aerospace by joining AIAA, where she learned a lot and met some cool, hard-working people, but ultimately decided that she was more interested in pursuing the path of science and medicine, and this influenced Kaely’s first co-op search.
As a MechE looking for co-ops related to medicine, the assumed approach was to target medical device companies. As early as the interview stage, however, I realized that medical device testing was not going to cut it for me - I found myself asking each company about any opportunities to work with the actual science or interact with the doctors using the devices, and the general response was that 'those activities are not what we do or need to worry about.' The problem was that I wanted to worry about it; the underlying science and medicine was what intrigued and interested me. This led to me widen my search a bit by applying to a biotech company called XTuit Pharmaceuticals in Waltham, MA for a Process Development and Formulation role. I think what drew me to it was the hands-on lab experimentation and close proximity to the science mentioned in the job description that I felt would help fulfill what I felt I would miss out on at the other companies I was considering. I am so thankful that I took the chance to apply, because it led to me a co-op that truly set me up for my college experience.
At XTuit, my main responsibilities centered around optimizing the formulation and process for producing drug-loaded polymeric nanoparticles as part of the small (~20 people) startup's drug delivery platform for treating cancer and fibrotic disorders. My activities included conducting nanoprecipitations at various conditions and analyzing the particle size and drug-loading to identify how the process conditions affected particle characteristics. I learned a tremendous amount at XTuit, starting from week one when I learned how to use a pipette to further into my co-op when I gave a company-wide presentation to defend the importance of the project I had been working on. I gained an indispensable mentor that I continue to talk to today and I developed a love for the fast-paced, dynamic environment of startups. Perhaps most importantly, my co-op at XTuit led me to switch into Bioengineering for the semester I returned to classes.
I kept in touch with my mentor from XTuit during my second co-op search, and he connected me with his colleague who is the CSO at another biotech startup interested in starting a co-op program. After a phone call with the CSO to discuss my interests and a site visit with the interested manager, it was clear that our interests and goals matched up, and I saw it as a really unique opportunity to be the first co-op at the company and pave the way for future ones. The company is called SQZ Biotech in Watertown, MA and I worked on the Process Development team. My main activities were contributing to team-based experiments for evaluating unit operations for the future clinical, GMP manufacturing of SQZ's novel cell therapy platform targeting cancer and other diseases. For some reason, I did not realize until I started my co-op that it would be so unexpectedly different from my experience at XTuit. At XTuit, I had worked with small molecules and chemistry, but at SQZ I was working with living cells and the complexity of biology. It was at SQZ that I was introduced to the world of immunology and where my current interest in immunotherapy really stems from. At SQZ, I learned a lot about teamwork, communication, and commitment, and more about myself and my work ethic. My manager helped me to develop strong presentation skills, specifically regarding how to tailor my presentation to my audience. My most memorable experience at SQZ was a troubleshooting study I unexpectedly took on that culminated in a presentation to scientists and superiors during which I defended my results and made a supported recommendation for addressing the problem. My recommendation was adopted and is still used by the company today.
For my third and final co-op, I knew that I wanted to work in immunotherapy, but I wanted to go to a larger, more advanced stage company. I heavily considered returning to SQZ, but it became very clear that it was really important to me that I use my three co-ops to try three different experiences. This led me to Jounce Therapeutics in Cambridge, MA, an immuno-oncology company with a truly startup feel and many early stage projects, but also an advanced program in clinical trials. At Jounce, I was part of the Discovery team working on an early stage program. Unlike at my two other co-ops, at Jounce I had my own defined project that I generally worked on independently to help elucidate the mechanism of action of a protein therapeutic. I am grateful for my manager, as she struck a great balance between being a supportive, guiding resource but also giving me autonomy and ownership of my project. My co-op was a challenging but rewarding experience in tackling multiple parts of a project, including educating myself on the underlying immunology, understanding the space through reading the literature, designing and conducting experiments, maintaining cell culture, analyzing data, and presenting my results to various audiences. I learned a tremendous amount about how to approach a question with an incremental experimental approach and gained invaluable presentation practice. I found myself deeply interested in the science and invested in the success of the project, which made it difficult to leave at the end of co-op.
One thing that stands out to me as I have progressed through my co-ops is the almost tangible improvement in my self-confidence.
But enough about co-op - let's talk about food! I joined Spoon University Northeastern during my freshman year and ever since, I have been cultivating a love for food - eating it, sharing it, learning about it, and exploring it in Boston. Spoon University is a food website for college students, by college students, with chapters are various universities across the world. In my time as a member of the Northeastern chapter, my approach has been to be involved in what I actually enjoy doing, rather than doing things that feel like a chore. At some points, this led me to write various articles for the site. My favorites include two articles I did in collaboration with other writers to showcase the food at the Boston Calling Music Festival (2017 and 2018). I emailed restaurants on the food vendor list to request free or discounted food for us to try and photograph for our article, and the response was overwhelmingly positive and generous! I have truly enjoyed connecting with Boston restaurants and the people behind them and have made some great friends. These connections even led to the opportunity to volunteer at the Roxy's Grilled Cheese tent at Boston Calling last year, where I made grilled cheeses and interacted with customers. It was such a fun and unique experience, and I can't wait to do it again! These days, I'm on the E-Board and I create a weekly newsletter email sent to our members. My favorite part of the newsletter is the Events section where I share food-related events in Boston. I have become very in touch with happenings in Boston through social media, but I have found that many people who would be interested in the events don't even know they exist. The newsletter has been my way of sharing this with others.
In terms of future plans, I'm searching for a full-time job after graduation in the biotech space, particularly immunotherapy, but also researching opportunities to approach the industry from the new angle of business development and consulting. I intend to pursue a PhD in the near future after working, likely in bioengineering or immunology. My creative hobby of food has led me to consider how I can incorporate this interest into my life and maybe my career, and has led me to develop a keen interest in entrepreneurship.