How an Innovative Biomedical Graduate School Empowers Students to Reach Their Potential

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GSK student in lab

Three graduates, three journeys

Lindsay

Lindsay LaFave and Ross Levine

As an undergraduate student approaching graduation at the University of Michigan, Lindsay LaFave had a sense of what she wanted to do next but wasn’t sure where her new chapter would unfold.

“I was looking for a graduate program where I could continue to work on cancer biology,” she says. “And I was applying broadly across the country to find a good fit.”

Soon after submitting her applications, LaFave, a Midwest native, landed in New York City for the first time in her life, interviewing at the relatively new PhD program at the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK), which had yet to graduate a single class. Soon after, she took what she describes as a “leap of faith” and enrolled at GSK, the graduate school affiliated with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), the world’s oldest and largest private cancer care center. By doing so, she entered a program that is redefining the study of biomedical science by providing students with best-in-class research experience and equipping graduates to pursue an unmatched range of career opportunities in science.

Upon completing her PhD at GSK, LaFave held a postdoctoral position at MIT and will soon start her own research lab this fall at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore Health System in New York.

Prashant

Prashant Monian

Prashant Monian was also interested in cancer-related research after he graduated from the University of Georgia. While applying to graduate schools, the opportunity to study oncology was at the top of his “must-haves” list for a PhD program and he envisioned himself pursuing a tenure-track professor position in the future. GSK’s affiliation with MSK, along with its Big Apple location, compelled him to take his own leap and enroll in the program.

Throughout his time at GSK, he heard several faculty members lecture about their own areas of expertise and conducted hands-on research in a cell biology lab, which made Monian realize his interests went beyond the research bench. While in the program, he immersed himself in the business side of the science world. He participated in an extracurricular consulting club, where he discussed case studies with other graduate students from GSK and nearby institutions and learned from professionals who found positions at top venture capital and consulting firms after earning their PhDs.

After two years in consulting, Monian moved to Boston where he now serves as a Senior Scientist at Wave Life Sciences, a biotech company based in Cambridge, Mass. At Wave, Monian conducts research in the lab and works with senior leaders to analyze results and chart the company’s strategic course – an ideal balance of what he learned, and grew to love, at GSK.

Theresa

Theresa Hunter and Joseph Sun

When Theresa Hunter enrolled at GSK after earning her undergraduate degree at the California Institute of Technology, she had a clear vision for her future. “I knew I wanted to study immunology,” she says. “And I wanted to eventually make an impact on patients.”

Hunter soon recognized the value of GSK’s unique structure, which has students finish their course work in the first year so that they can immerse themselves in the lab after. By working directly with MSK scientists and honing her research and analytical skills, Hunter moved closer each day to her goal of conducting research that could make a meaningful impact on patients’ lives.

Now, after completing a post-doc at pharmaceutical giant Merck, Hunter serves as a Senior Scientist at PACT Pharma, a clinical stage immuno-oncology company based in South San Francisco, overseeing experiments and helping the personalized cell therapy company provide solutions for patients with solid tumors.

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Differing journeys, common threads

These varying career paths reflect GSK’s mission to help graduates excel across the world of science. Founded in 2004, GSK is located in a hotbed of biomedical research, and is quietly (but quickly) building a reputation as a go-to destination for bright students interested in all aspects of biomedical science. The innovative program allows students to explore cancer science through a wide lens of basic and translational research.

To most observers, GSK’s appeal lies primarily in its affiliation with MSK, one of the most recognized cancer hospitals and research centers in the world. The program, however, isn’t strictly focused on cancer research. Far from it, in fact.

As LaFave puts it, “While Memorial Sloan Kettering is one of the top cancer hospitals in the country and there are many opportunities in that space, there are also a number of labs at the institution doing basic biology not related to cancer.”

LaFave and her fellow graduates are quick to note GSK’s strength when it comes to the basic science – the building blocks that allow students to construct their academic path. With this backdrop, it’s no surprise that GSK boasts graduates in an array of science-related fields.

“A couple of my classmates are working as data scientists, or in venture capital,” says Monian. “One of my immediate classmates got a tenure-track faculty position in New York. It runs the entire spectrum of careers across the sciences.”

“The career services at GSK were very supportive,” Hunter adds. “They had the resources to help put you on your career trajectory. It’s definitely a big plus.”

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A curriculum that fosters real-world experience

GSK graduates have such varied scientific and career interests after graduation because many enter the program with one focus area in mind, and wind up pursuing something completely different – a dynamic that took root naturally as the program established an innovative curriculum of academic study and lab research from the start.

The first year of study features the “core course” – foundational classes such as experimental and mechanistic biology – along with the opportunity to try three separate laboratory rotations. From there, students move on to exclusively conducting research, ultimately choosing a mentor who helps guide their research and support their dissertation.

“At GSK most [of the coursework] was frontloaded in the first year, so for the second year and the rest you can focus on science you’re interested in,” says LaFave.

Along the way, students participate in journal clubs, sessions that require them to read and critique papers that are often far outside their area of study – a way to build analytical skills and familiarize themselves with cutting edge research across the biomedical spectrum.

By prioritizing hands-on experience and intellectual development over rote memorization, GSK exposes students to numerous topic areas and research disciplines. “I think what was great about the GSK curriculum was that they gave us the tools in the first year to understand how to research and figure out what we needed to learn,” LaFave explains. “Schools like GSK are really exciting for people that want to get into the science very quickly.”

The program also features a mentorship program that many students credit with their eventual career decisions.

Xuejun Jiang, PhD, a cell biologist who runs his own lab at MSK, served as Monian’s mentor. “Having multiple staff giving lectures was critical [to my career decision], as they were teaching students in specific fields but also introducing students to their different labs,” Monian says. “The first-year mentor was helpful in arriving at my decision. I slowly transitioned into wanting to work in a cell biology lab later in the program.”

Hunter served in the immunology lab of Joseph Sun, PhD, working closely with him as the third graduate student to join the lab. “He was very present and willing to ask and answer my questions,” she says.

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A vibrant, collaborative setting

Independently, the wide range of courses and research options makes for a unique and rewarding graduate school experience, but GSK graduates also tout the school’s proximity to other top institutions. “New York City is a great place to be a graduate student,” says Hunter. “With GSK, The Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell together in the same area, you’re able to share a lot of seminars and interact with scientists from those different institutions.”

In addition to learning from their peers, GSK students tap into the unmatched professional opportunities across the city. “Being in New York City was a huge benefit because as a PhD student in life sciences, it allows you to explore careers that aren’t often available to people in other places,” Monian says. “There’s venture capital, consulting, other business-oriented careers. These firms come on campus to recruit and give info sessions.”

Then there’s the city itself. GSK subsidizes student housing in its Upper East Side neighborhood, a boon for busy students who need to run by the lab to check on their samples at odd hours. The program also organizes outings – hockey games, bowling in Brooklyn – to bring students together and provide a welcome respite from the grad school grind. Hunter took full advantage of her complimentary membership to the New York Academy of Sciences, while LaFave joined the city’s lively running community, taking part in weekend 5K races in Central Park.

For LaFave, who is returning to the city to run her own lab focused on using epigenomic technologies to study gene regulation in lung cancer, GSK’s setting played a critical role in her journey. “It was a perfect time in my life to transition from undergrad and be able to live in New York City,” she says. “Whatever your interest is, you can find something.”

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A growing powerhouse in NYC

As new students settle in this fall in New York City, GSK will continue to evolve and find new ways for individuals to immerse themselves in biomedical science and find their own unique careers.

“GSK is very well respected across many biology and cancer biology focused programs,” LaFave says. “For me it’s quite amazing, when I began at GSK there wasn’t a graduated student yet, but now you can see from the success of students, and the high quality of science that is being done by graduates in the labs of GSK scientists and physicians, that the program is quite successful.”

To learn more about how to apply to Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, click here.

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