First-Year Students Bring Enthusiasm and Passion for Science to Innovative PhD Program

Klavdija Bastl

“I treasure the fact that you can have […] conversations about your research with such incredible scientists on a relaxed basis and think about the possibilities and outcomes,” says first-year student Klavdija Bastl.

Whether you’re in grade school or graduate school, late summer means it’s back to school season. It comes with the anticipation of exciting opportunities to set new goals, learn new things, and meet new people. This is not lost on the 18 first-year students who recently began their journey toward earning a doctorate at the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK).

The students hail from across the US and around the world, and were driven to GSK by a passion for science. They were drawn to the unique opportunity to train alongside some of the world’s leading basic scientists and clinical researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center - in a small-group, hands-on environment.

The incoming students include 12 PhD candidates and six students who are working toward a combined MD/PhD degree. They represent the 16th class to be accepted to GSK, which was established in 2006.

A Warm Welcome

Slovenian-born Klavdija Bastl says, “This is a big transition, especially for international students like me, but GSK has done a fantastic job helping us to get to New York and integrating us into this incredible scientific community, even with COVID-19 restrictions in place.” She packed her bags and headed for New York City just two weeks after receiving her Master’s in Comparitive Biomedicine from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria.

Once accepted students make the decision to come to GSK in April, the dean’s office begins a virtual on-boarding process so they are well-primed with the information they need prior to their arrival in July.

Learn about the Cancer Biology and Cancer Engineering PhD programs at the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, part of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

GSK’s Student Council also plays a key role in helping students acclimate to life at GSK. For example, the council members pair each new student with a peer mentor who is available to guide and support them as they settle into their first year in the program. They also arrange meet-and-greet receptions and fun outings in the city to help the students get to know one another and the faculty.

Though school-sponsored social activities were postponed or canceled because of the pandemic, the new students received a warm welcome to the program during an in-person orientation held their first week on campus. Ms. Bastl says she appreciated meeting the dean in person and felt an instant camaraderie with the other first-year students there. “Orientation was handled with such care, and it was everything I could have wished for in times like these,” she adds.

A Student-Focused Program

Peter Chhoy, a first-generation college student from Lowell, Massachusetts, knew from his first interview that he wanted to come to GSK. He brings diverse job experiences, ranging from working in a lab at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to advising biotechnology companies on corporate strategy as a management consultant.

“That’s what I like about GSK, at least from the admissions standpoint, it’s about the whole package,” says Mr. Chhoy, who earned his Master’s of Science in Pharmacology from Duke University. “I love the diversity of backgrounds in my class, with people from all different walks of life, different scientific interests, and different academic and work experiences.”

Peter Chhoy

Peter Chhoy

He says GSK is different from other graduate schools because it offers a more customized experience. “It’s really student-focused. The scientific rigor, world-class faculty, and small class sizes at GSK give us a personalized view into science and a personalized education, which is what I really wanted as a graduate student,” explains Mr. Chhoy. “The curriculum is tailored towards developing the student not only from a research perspective but helping you achieve your career goals.”

Personal Attention from Esteemed Faculty

GSK’s highly competitive program features class sizes of up to 12 students and a 10-to-1 faculty-to-student ratio. “This allows our dedicated scientists to support students from their first day of school, through their thesis selection, dissertation defense, and beyond,” says GSK Dean Michael Overholtzer.

Small class size was an important selling point for Ms. Bastl. “It makes it easier to ask questions and have helpful exchanges directly with the professors, who encourage you to think critically, develop your skills, and make new discoveries in a supportive and collaborative environment,” she explains.

Michael Overholtzer

Michael Overholtzer

GSK boasts more than 130 faculty members who are internationally recognized in their fields, including cancer biology, genomics, immunology, and structural biology, among others. They are devoted to making sure students get the best and most relevant experience possible.

“Each one of us is committed to offering the personal attention, mentorship, and opportunities for professional development that students need to plan for a successful and fulfilling career in the biomedical sciences,  wherever they want to go next — whether it be academia, industry, business, or government,” says Dr. Overholtzer.

An Innovative Curriculum

GSK’s innovative program educates students about the biomedical sciences while providing a deep understanding of today’s clinical challenges. All students enter the program without a formal commitment to a particular laboratory. Dr. Overholtzer explains: “This gives students the flexibility to explore potential research mentors, participate in the first-year classes, and learn about new areas of research through meetings with the faculty.”

During their first year of study, students complete several courses, take part in a journal club, and try out three laboratories that they choose in consultation with the dean. This year’s incoming students wrapped up their first lab rotation in August.

Ms. Bastl chose to do her first rotation in the laboratory of molecular biologist Andrew Koff, whose research focuses on therapy-induced senescence - a process by which a cell ages and stops dividing but does not die - and its role in cancer.

“Every morning, Dr. Koff would come in and ask, ‘What’s new?’ and we would discuss the work we did the previous day,” she says, appreciating the close-knit environment that fosters this exchange of information. “I treasure the fact that you can have these conversations about your research with such incredible scientists on a relaxed basis and think about the possibilities and outcomes.”

Mr. Chhoy completed his first rotation in the laboratory of physician-scientist Samuel Bakhoum, and was equally impressed by how approachable the faculty is. Dr. Bakhoum’s research aims to understand the role of chromosomal instability in tumor evolution and progression. “They are all leaders in their field and yet they are extremely down-to-earth and genuinely care about you as a person. They’re great teachers, not just great scientists,” Mr. Chhoy says. 

Mr. Chhoy adds that he benefited not only from his mentor’s attention, but also from the postdocs and graduate students in the lab, learning about experimental technique as well as theory. “My first rotation set the bar high, showing me not only the rigor of the science that happens here, but also how MSK is a really collaborative place,” he says. “Everyone is kind and wants to help you.”

Admission to the PhD Programs
Gerstner Sloan Kettering offers a unique opportunity to train with some of the world’s leading researchers while developing a deep understanding of today’s clinical challenges. We are looking for highly qualified students who are driven by their interest in science and want to make a difference in our efforts to control human disease. Learn more about our admission requirements and how to apply.

Research that Impacts Patient Care

By the end of their first year, students confirm their thesis topic and prepare to begin their full-time dissertation research in year two of the program. They also participate in a clinical apprenticeship, which is intended to give them perspective on how bench work can be applied in the clinic.

“It’s important for students to develop an understanding and appreciation of the human side of disease and to think about clinical challenges from a basic science perspective,” says Dr. Overholtzer.

The translational impact of their work is often a key reason why students choose to pursue their doctorate at GSK.

“You can’t get any better than the cancer research that takes place at MSK. It’s where breakthroughs like immunotherapy happen. That’s why I’m here,” says Mr. Chhoy.

GSK was the only school that Ms. Bastl applied to. “I came to GSK dreaming that I would get to contribute to what MSK is doing for cancer treatment,” she says. “Knowing that your research may one day help people with cancer has a different kind of impact. If I was going to move away from my family and my fiancé to do this, I was going to go to GSK.”