New ImPACT initiative puts graduate students on the path toward successful science careers

The immersion internship program pairs young scientists with leading companies and organizations throughout the Triangle to bolster experience outside academia.

New ImPACT initiative puts graduate students on the path toward successful science careers click to enlarge Emilie Mainz

June 23, 2016

Emilie Mainz, a chemistry doctoral student, is one of nearly 50 life science PhD candidates and postdocs who have benefitted from a new UNC internship program called the Immersion Program to Advance Career Training (ImPACT). In only its second year, ImPACT, which is housed at the UNC School of Medicine, is already getting national attention from the scientific community and has been featured in articles published by the journal Cell, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

With the help of ImPACT, Mainz spent last summer working at BD Technologies in Research Triangle Park on a single-cell, next-generation sequencing technology that will be released later this year. Her supervisors at BD were so impressed with her that they encouraged her to apply to BD’s Technology Leadership Development Program. Mainz will start the program next month, which prepares high-potential PhD’s for leadership roles in research and development within BD.

“ImPACT supplied the rare opportunity to develop new technical skills while building a valuable network within the medical device industry,” Mainz said. “These experiences solidified my career path and undoubtedly made me a more competitive candidate.”

Internships in professional programs are nothing new, but in the apprentice-based model of life science research training, internships are much less common. That’s changing now due in part to changing aspirations of incoming trainees and job market realities. For example, only about 15 percent of life science PhDs will get a job in a tenure-track academic position, according to the NIH 2012 Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report.

ImPACT builds on UNC’s history of strong and proactive support for trainee professional development. In fact, institutional support was crucial for securing an NIH grant known as Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST), which makes ImPACT possible. The leadership team of UNC’s BEST grant consists of Patrick Brandt, PhD, ImPACT program director, Jean Cook, PhD, associate dean of graduate education at the School of Medicine and associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics, Patrick Brennwald, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology, and Beka Layton, PhD, director of training initiatives in biological and biomedical sciences in the office of graduate education.

Patrick Brandt
Patrick Brandt, PhD, ImPACT program director
UNC is one of 17 BEST awardees nationwide.

The purpose of an ImPACT internship is to provide graduate students and postdocs with an immersive experience in a career path outside the academic setting. An ImPACT intern learns about the pros and cons of their desired career path, builds their resume, and makes important networking connections.  

Internships usually last 160 hours unless the host company decides to extend the internship by matching funds. Funding for the first 160 hours comes from a combination of university sources, an endowment from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and matching funds provided by some internship hosts.

In 2015, 21 ImPACT interns worked at 16 local companies and non-profits. This year, there will be at least 25 interns in fields ranging from biotech R&D and teaching to science policy and science writing. Trainees chosen for ImPACT have the option of being hand-picked by company partners for pre-arranged internship projects, or if they prefer, they can use their networking skills to design a personalized internship at any local scientific employer.

Examples of what ImPACT interns accomplish during their internships include:

  • Pairing whole genome sequencing and computer programming.
  • Working on science policy issues at National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park.
  • Engaging with the public about the microbiota – all the bacteria that live in us and on us—through science outreach at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
  • Developing and delivering an undergraduate science course at Meredith College.
  • Helping to develop a business strategy at Ribometrics, a new UNC startup company.

ImPACT is a grant-funded career development experiment, and as such there is a strong focus on program evaluation. “We will be tracking career satisfaction, compensation, and other metrics over the next several years to gauge the success of the program and can already report that satisfaction is impressively high among interns, host organizations, internship supervisors, and research mentors,” said ImPACT program director Patrick Brandt.

The success of ImPACT will ultimately be measured by its value to the interns and their hosts. Current survey results show that 93 percent of internship supervisors were satisfied or very satisfied with hosting an intern,  73 percent said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to offer the intern a position in the organization, and 100 percent said they were “likely” or “very likely” to host an intern again. Every intern who responded to ImPACT’s post-internship survey indicated that they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the internship had made them more competitive for the job market.

Although each trainee experience is distinct and tailored to their career goals and interests, the following stories are good indicators that the program is on the right track:

Gentry Impact
Leanna Gentry, PhD
Leanna Gentry, PhD, a former pharmacology doctoral student at UNC, interned part time at Cato Research in Durham during the summer of 2015. Working with senior regulatory scientists at Cato on a regulatory affairs project, she learned firsthand about regulatory legislation, Food and Drug Administration compliance, how to submit new investigational drug applications, and regulatory reporting. Two months after completing her internship, Gentry graduated and was hired at Cato as a scientist. Her position allows her to contribute to both clinical and regulatory strategy.

“The internship gave me experience in drug development that I could not have gained otherwise in graduate school,” Gentry said. “Thanks in large part to the ImPACT award, I secured a position in the competitive field of clinical research without additional postgraduate training.”

Jon Hagar
Jon Hagar, PhD
Jon Hagar, a microbiology and immunology PhD candidate previously featured by the UNC School of Medicine, worked part time at a mid-sized UNC spinoff biotech company called Parion Sciences in Durham. His main goal was to evaluate the scientific and commercial merit of candidate pipeline technologies. He was vigorously recruited for a full-time position at Parion, but instead pursued an industry postdoc. With great recommendations and his industry experience from Parion, he was chosen for the highly-competitive postdoc program at Genentech in San Francisco. He will start this summer.

“My time at Parion solidified my interests in early-stage drug development and business strategy,” Hagar said. “Insights I gained into both will be useful whether I pursue an industry career or academic career.”

Congratulations to the 2016 ImPACT interns: Amy Rydeen, Annelise Gorensek, Brittany Miller, Dana Walsh, Danielle Rogers, Deirdre Tucker, Desinia Miller, Diana Chong, Greg Woss, Greg Zapotoczny, Jenna Honeycutt, Jennifer Kernan, Jet Sperlazza, Kara Boltz, Katie Rehain, Kelsey Gray, Kumuditha Ratnayake, Kyle Arend, Lindsay Walton, Lior Vered, Maria Bednar, Michael Werner, Sara Conard, Sarah Marks, and Taylor Penke.

For more information on ImPACT, check its website.

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