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Biology Symposium

Research Symposiums, Engineers Without Borders Help Students Explore Grad School Options

Symposiums provide a vision for students on the possibilities of what’s possible in engineering, life sciences

February 5, 2020
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WPI has developed cross-cutting research areas as part of its university-wide strategic plan, and as the university moves into these multidisciplinary areas it is stepping up efforts to recruit graduate students who can assist faculty in conducting transformative research.

The recent Next-in-Bio and Next-in-Engineering symposiums encouraged students to explore career paths, discover graduate school options, grow their professional networks, and compete for research poster prizes.

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Robert Krueger

WPI’s partnership with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) opens up opportunities for some of the nonprofit’s 14,000 members in the U.S. to come to WPI and become truly interdisciplinary engineers working in cross-cultural contexts.

“This helps us expand our scope geographically and in terms of diversity and inclusiveness,” says Professor Rob Krueger, the WPI lead on developing the partnership.

Krueger is working with EWB-USA to help the organization develop its own educational programming to prepare its students for their international experiences, do advanced training when they return, and, one day, looking toward the idea WPI would accredit these courses as WPI certificates.

“We’re also working with them to develop a pipeline from their membership for people who would be interested in working in this area of development engineering,” he says.

“There’s a diversity to EWB, and my observation is that they are overrepresented by women and other traditionally underrepresented groups,” Krueger says. “They have a social mission. Underrepresented groups in STEM have traditionally been attracted to STEM with a social mission.”

EWB is already working in countries around the world, and WPI provides a place for its students who want to continue that experience through WPI’s development engineering program.

“As for students who go out on two- or three-week experiences working in communities who are civil engineers, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, we realize they’ve had a transformative experience and want to do more of that kind of work,” he says. “So the program we’re promoting is in development engineering, which will capture and provide an outlet for the skills and interests of those people.”

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John A. McNeill

Those attending the “Next-in-Bio” career expo and research symposium in the Foisie Innovation Studio explored life sciences career paths. Students submitted abstracts on topics related to biology, bioinformatics, computational biology, biotechnology, biomedical engineering, biochemistry, or other biomedical sciences and gave presentations at the event. Some students were hired on the spot.

The Next-in-Engineering symposium followed two weeks later. John McNeill, dean of engineering, ad interim, organized and moderated that event on Nov. 16. With nearly 140,000 new jobs expected for engineers over the 2016–26 decade (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), WPI students are well positioned for the job market, panelists said. McNeill asked panelists to share the lessons they learned over their engineering career path.

“Continue learning,” said panelist Don Granquist-Fraser, principal engineer, Collins Aerospace. “You learn more after you graduate. Your degree gives you license to apply what you are learning and continue learning. If you don’t like learning, you shouldn’t be an engineer.”

Also open to non-WPI students, the symposiums featured roundtable discussions on graduate programs and careers for graduate students, panel discussions, keynote speakers, and a networking session following the events.

Better students recruited into graduate programs

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Reeta Rao

Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Reeta Rao, who founded the Next-in-Bio event four years ago, said the goal is to encourage undergraduate students to look at options for graduate school and career paths following graduation. “The data says the highest attrition from science is at the undergraduate level for multiple reasons, including not feeling part of the community,” she says. “WPI does a good job integrating undergrads into research in our graduate programs as well as undergrad programs.”

The bio symposium brings two ideas together, said Rao, a professor of biology and biotechnology. “The venue is a nice opportunity for students to meet other students, to look at graduate programs, and to have alumni come see how we are investing in research and science—and to also have recruiters come to campus.” 

Rao sees the event becoming a broader marketplace for recruiters in the biotech area and students from WPI and other intuitions to network and possibly expanding it to include the school of Arts and Sciences.

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Suzanne Weekes

“There isn't anything like this going on in the greater Boston area or between Amherst and Cambridge,” she added.

Prizes ranging from $100 to $500 are also awarded for the best poster based on merit, with separate prizes awarded to WPI students.

Suzanne Weekes, associate dean of undergraduate studies, said the event underscores the importance of undergraduate research. “Aside from the MQP (Major Qualifying Project), WPI undergrads are working on research during the summer or school year with faculty in their labs or on the research projects,” she said. “Research in itself is vital to discovery. To move our society forward we need people to sit down and think seriously about the small questions and the big questions, to go deep to solve problems, to find out the answers.”

-By Paula Owen