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Interdepartmental Health Sciences Student Michael Cruz

Drexel University College of Medicine, Interdisciplinary Health Sciences program student Michael Cruz.

Background

Hometown: Miami, Florida
Undergraduate Education: Emory University
Drexel University College of Medicine Class: 2016

Q&A

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what brought you to Drexel?

I’m from Miami, Florida. I attended Emory University for undergrad, where I majored in biology. After I graduated, I earned a research associate position at the University of Miami School of Medicine doing HIV/AIDS vaccine research under Dr. David Watkins. I had an interest in vaccines and immunology prior to that, but this opportunity in Miami really advanced my understanding of how they work. I was fortunate enough to work at UMSOM for two years, before I decided I wanted to earn an advanced degree which led me to Drexel. I was initially introduced to Drexel through scientific collaborations with investigators from both Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania during my time in Miami. I was further drawn to Drexel’s master’s program because of the heavy research component. The fact that I’d be able to continue my research interests in a program linked to a medical school was extremely beneficial for my career progression.

When did you first become interested in medicine and vaccines?

This might sound strange, but I’ve been interested in medicine and vaccines since I was a kid. That interest stems from my background. I’ve done missionary work in free medical clinics in the Dominican Republic (DR) where individuals, or “campesinos,” have a lack of access to medical care. I’ve always seen vaccinations and immunizations as one of the biggest investments a government can make in terms of improving their society and their economy. A healthy population lays foundation to a vibrant society. My desire to help communities like those in the DR is what motivates me.

What has been the best part of the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences program at Drexel?

I feel genuinely connected with the faculty- whether it be Dr. GH, Dr. Jost or Matt Sanuck, just to name a few. Most, if not all, professors have an open-door policy which allows students to drop in and discuss anything, really. To put it into perspective; I graduated in May and still exchange e-mails with multiple faculty members. In addition, the mentorship here is extraordinary and the faculty helped guide me towards a career path. I appreciate the direction they gave. I also really liked that I was able to work in a research facility with a connection to a medical school. I participated in Discovery Day and that was a phenomenal experience. I’d only been here for a year when I presented at Discovery Day, and Dr. Simansky, the vice dean for research, judged my poster. His questions were intense, but I managed and was later told by Dr. Simansky how impressed he was with my preparation. That moment really sticks out and helped build confidence in pursuit of my career.

What was your relationship like with other students in the program?

There’s a lot of collaboration here, and that’s kind of amazing when you consider that it’s a graduate school in a big city. You’re not all living in the same area and you’re not all on the same schedule, but as we settled in, it was a very collaborative environment. There’s a great sense of community in the program and that was great because in the health care profession you’re rarely, if ever, working on your own; you have to work with people in teams, so it was helpful to learn the curriculum that way.

There is also a new mentorship program that was started by classmates of mine. This program has also helped strengthen the collaboration and facilitated the transition into our program. First-year students can sign up by providing their name, phone number, and academic/career interests with the goal of being paired with a second-year student.

Did the program’s curriculum meet your personal needs?

The curriculum is very flexible. It’s called Interdisciplinary Health Sciences because it truly taps into several disciplines. You can select the courses that you want to meet your career goals. You can do everything from animal science labs to histology and cadaver labs. You really can guide your studies towards what you need.

In my case, I took histology, immunology, biochemistry, genetics, and neuropharmacology, just to name a few. What made these classes even more interesting was that my lab work at Drexel with Dr. Krebs really complemented my coursework. This made my Drexel education a hands-on experience and helped reinforce everything I was learning.

What’s the next step for you after Drexel?

I will be working at GlaxoSmithKline. I was accepted into their Future Leaders Program for Vaccines Research & Development. I will first do a one-year international assignment in Belgium where their global vaccines headquarters is located. After the year, I will return to the U.S. to work at their new U.S. Vaccine R&D headquarters that was opened this past year in Rockville, Maryland.

How did you find the fellowship with GlaxoSmithKline?

Honestly, the opportunity with GSK came out of the blue. I first learned about GSK through my immunology professor, Dr. Jost. Coincidently, during this time an undergraduate student, Yash Varma, who supported me in our lab, was also fortunate enough to receive a co-op for the following semester at GSK in King of Prussia. After learning what he was doing there, I decided to look into GSK more and found the Future Leaders Program.

The Future Leaders Program (FLP) is a highly competitive program. It is a global program, and as such you are competing globally. Requisites for the position indicated a medical degree or a PhD, but noted that highly qualified master’s degree students may be considered. After talking to the HR representative from GSK, I was reassured that my background would make me a strong candidate. To my surprise, only 10 candidates out of thousands were invited to the two-day assessment center; and unbeknownst at the time, I was also the only candidate holding only a master’s degree. As time would show, I was fortunate enough to receive the position which is something I’m extremely proud of and credit a multitude of factors including my experience at Drexel.

That is incredible. What will you be doing over the next two years with them?

Thank you! The next two years will follow the program’s structure which consists of three rotations within GSK’s Vaccine R&D. My first rotation will be a one-year rotation in Rixensart, Belgium, studying and preforming pre-clinical studies for viral vaccines. After this rotation, I will have two six-month rotations in Rockville, MD, in other departments of vaccines. The goal of this program is to expose me to all aspects of vaccines at GSK. This encompasses understanding the research and development of a vaccine, and ultimately understanding a vaccine’s medical and governmental processes necessary for distribution within a respective country.

Currently, GSK’s vaccine portfolio includes 39 vaccines on the market and about 15 new vaccines that are in development, including HIV, TB, malaria, and Zika. With the current outbreak of Zika, I have been tasked to focus my first rotation on flavivirus vaccine candidates, particularly Zika and Dengue. My role for these projects can include an extensive and broad spectrum of tasks that provide the opportunity to investigate broadly neutralizing antibodies, working with scientists and engineers to determine feasible yet efficacious administration of the vaccine (one dose vs. two doses, for example) and working with marketing experts to consider appropriate pricing for the vaccine.

How does this fellowship fit into your larger career goals?

My goal is to serve others and to make a difference by providing better medical access to individuals like those in the DR. I would ideally like to obtain an MD/PhD degree in the near future to better achieve this mission. I really want to do clinical work and talked about that a lot during my interview and assessment with GSK.

GSK invests heavily in the people who go through their Future Leaders Program. To give an example, the current CEO of GSK, Andrew Witty, did a program like this one. They encourage you to continue your education, and that’s my plan. I eventually would like to manage the clinical trials and work more closely with the people we’re trying to help.

What advice would you give to future IHS students?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. The health care industry is based on teamwork, so reach out and soak up all the different experiences you can. It always helps to open up and branch out. Also, be prepared to work. It’s a rigorous program, but it can be done if you put in the effort. And lastly, build relationships with your teachers. They are there to help you as evident by their open door policies. You can stop by and talk to them about class, life, and career goals. I got so much out of that.

 
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Graduate students in a Interdisciplinary Health Sciences lecture at Drexel University College of Medicine.