EnRICH program helps grad students explore the possibilities
Everyone in the family thought Laimis Belzinskas should become an engineer, not a doctor. He loved tinkering. He designed roller coasters using simulation software. He did 3-D modeling for fun.
But he also wanted to help people live healthier. He liked medicine and had shadowed hospital physicians to sample clinical life. Earning an MD was his goal — after completing a medical physiology master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Near the end of the first year of his master’s program, he began seeking more hands-on learning outside the classroom. He contacted Cheryl Thompson, PhD, Director of Master’s Programs and head of the School of Medicine’s EnRICH (Enhancing Research and Industry Career Horizons) program. She responded with two internship opportunities — one at a hospital and one at Infinite Arthroscopy, a medical device start-up in Cleveland.
“They both fit my interest in medicine,” said Belzinskas. “But the job description from Infinite Arthroscopy included building and using mechanical and electrical engineering skills, things I naturally enjoyed.”
Belzinskas interviewed and was selected for both internships. Yet only one truly fascinated him. He accepted the position at Infinite Arthroscopy and began interning part-time while completing his master’s degree.
Now a year and a half later, Belzinskas is working full-time for the company as a biomedical engineer. It’s not the career he expected, but it’s the career he always wanted. And it’s all thanks to EnRICH.
Matching students with mentors and internships
EnRICH started two years ago as Thompson’s side project, initially funded through a supplement to a T32 training grant from the National Institutes of Health to expose graduate students to additional careers. When not teaching, conducting cancer genetics research or developing the School of Medicine’s master’s programs, Thompson began matchmaking — finding career mentors and internships for students pursuing graduate degrees in biomedical science.
“Occasionally potential mentors or employers will come to me, or I’ll meet them at events and ask if they’d be interested, or students will tell me what kind of experience they’re seeking,” said Thompson.
Her goal is threefold:
To do that, Thompson connects students and professionals for potential:
Each arrangement is customized. Some connections may be merely a meet-and-greet for future networking. Others may involve a months-long commitment. Some internships are paid. Others are volunteer positions. Some are during the semester. Others are during the summer.
Professionals are typically from local organizations — many from Cleveland Health-Tech Corridor companies — and work experiences are typically close to campus. From public health to pharmacology to bioinformatics and everything in between, opportunities reflect School of Medicine fields.
“Master’s students often use EnRICH to build their resumes and get a jump-start on job-search networking,” said Thompson. “Doctoral students often use it to explore career options outside of academia.”
Only about 20 percent of PhD graduates in the U.S. will work in academic research, she notes, referring to a stat from the National Institutes of Health’s Biomedical Workforce Working Group. The rest employ their skills in other sectors.
“Biotech companies are grateful that we’ve begun approaching them and introducing them to our students,” said Thompson. “Some have told me that they never pursued our PhD grads, assuming they all went into academic research. EnRICH is helping tear down CWRU’s ivory-tower perception and make new connections with the medical business community.”
From PhD to pharmaceutical businessman
Deoye Tonade enjoyed scientific research while earning his PhD in pharmacology, but was interested in leveraging his scientific expertise with business and management.
“I want to be an industrialist,” he said. “I am very interested in the business side of the pharmaceutical industry, involved in drug development and distribution. I’m still a scientist, developing drugs to help treat disease, but also executing strategic objectives to grow a pharmaceutical company, to create more jobs and make profits for the company and its shareholders.”
Pharmacology professor and Associate Dean Paul MacDonald, PhD, steered Tonade to the EnRICH program, where Thompson connected him to CMC Pharmaceuticals, a start-up contract research organization and pharmaceutical consulting company. He interviewed with CMC Pharma’s founder/president and business managers, and was hired as an intern in April 2017, a few months before graduating.
His internship involved competitive intelligence, supporting the development of non-opioid drug approaches to treating neuropathic back/spine pain. Tonade researched which pharmaceutical companies had products similar to CMC Pharma’s proposed approaches and compiled a list of similar pharmaceuticals approved by the FDA.
“It required doing lots of online research, tabulating information and studying trends to see how CMC Pharma could develop a superior product,” said Tonade. “The assignment was very laid back, and the CMC founder gave me lots of time, knowing that I was preparing to graduate.”
Tonade spent five to 20 hours per week on the project, mostly working from home or on campus. He said the project gave him a more “vivid experience” of the pharmaceutical industry, and that real-life exposure was more impactful than simply reading about or studying it.
After earning his PhD in July, Tonade was invited to join CMC Pharma full-time as a senior scientist. The position has given him an inside view of running a pharmaceutical company, something he hopes to do on his own someday.
“The founders and I met with potential investors in Dallas to raise financing to help expand CMC Pharma’s operations,” he said. “I’ve participated in grant writing and outreach programs to help recruit talent. I’ve interviewed new hires and now manage a small team of junior scientists. And I have consulted with many other professionals that serve the pharmaceutical industry.”
The budding entrepreneur credits EnRICH for the invaluable opportunity.
“If I didn’t have EnRICH, I wouldn’t have known that CMC existed,” said Tonade. “EnRICH is the reason I have this job.”
From future physician to biomedical engineer
Unlike Tonade, Belzinskas never anticipated a business career. He was set to become a doctor until interning at Infinite Arthroscopy, where he learned the basics of designing medical devices.
He began working 20 to 25 hours per week for the company in April 2016, during the first year of his master’s program. The internship extended through the summer and into his second year at the School of Medicine.
“The company made it clear to me that my schoolwork was most important,” said Belzinskas. “While I didn’t really have to sacrifice to fit in my work hours, I didn’t have a lot of free time.”
Belzinskas was assigned a current medical device to research. He studied its use, its effect on the patients and physicians using it, and its trouble spots. He and a team chose several core issues to try to resolve and then began brainstorming design solutions. The next steps would be 3-D modeling, feedback and testing.
His on-the-job experience inspired him to take a biomedical engineering biodesign course as part of his master’s program.
“I did well in biomedical engineering without having studied it before,” said Belzinskas. “The company had directed me in what I needed to learn, from ideation to creation to FDA regulation to marketing.”
When the time came for him to continue his path to med school and start studying for the MCAT®, he realized he was happy where he was.
“I decided that I could always go to med school, but I had an opportunity for a biomedical engineering career right now — and I was kind of good at it,” he said.
Following his graduation in May 2017, Belzinskas joined Infinite Arthroscopy full-time, continuing the work he began as an intern. He says that the device he redesigned during his internship is almost ready for functional prototyping and testing and is intended to be sold.
Finding the career you wanted — or never expected
Since EnRICH started in January 2016, more than 60 biomedical science graduate students have participated. It’s a small fraction of the student population, noted Thompson, who is hopeful to expand the program.
While students are matched with mentors, they must apply for internships and be selected by employers. Internships don’t always end up as full-time jobs as with Belzinskas and Tonade, but they almost always enhance a resume or help define a career direction, said Thompson.
More people should know about and benefit from EnRICH, said Belzinskas. “It gives you insights into the world you want to work in — or the world you never knew you wanted to work in.”