Biological Sciences, class of 2014
Aja has had a love for dinosaurs and paleontology from a very young age. She was born in Philadelphia, PA and attended a private high school outside of the city. Due to her love of paleontology, Aja earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, specializing in Paleobiology at Drexel University. During the summer between her freshman and sophomore year, Aja participated in the Students Tackling Advanced Research or S.T.A.R Program. This program allows undergraduate students to take part in advanced research. During this time she conducted research in synonymizing fossil collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Aja is now pursuing her Ph.D. in Paleobiology at the University of Pennsylvania.
What first sparked your interest in paleontology?
“I was always been told that there are two sets of paleontologists in the world. One set is brought into this world knowing you’re going to be a paleontologist. The other set finds out halfway through. I’m the first. I could spell ‘dinosaur’ before I could spell my name! When I was in kindergarten, we read this book about pets, and the teacher went around and said ‘What kind of pet do you want?’ and I said ‘I want a T-rex.’ ‘Well you can’t have one.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘They’re gone now, they’re extinct.’ Well that is not satisfactory! So I devoted my life to finding out where they went.”
Have you always been drawn to the sciences in general?
“I started volunteering for the Academy of Natural Sciences when I was 13, so I’ve grown up there. I loved the study of life, and I think it comes from my mom – she’s a psychologist, and in particular she loves neuropsychology, so she likes the bare, the gritty, ‘What is life?’ Where I’m like, there are so many different types of life! It’s mind-boggling; you can’t wrap your mind around it. Think of all the animals that exist right now, all the diversity. This is only 0.1% of everything that’s ever existed; everything else is extinct. For me, I was always drawn to biology. I love the study of life, whether it be fish, birds, plants (although they don’t do much, but I’m sure a botanist would argue with you).”
Were there particular mentors or programs that supported and drove your passion?
“Jason Poole – we call him ‘Chewie,’ he’s got long hair and a big beard – he’s been my supervisor since I was 13! I came to him and he was like ‘Let’s get you into the field.’ So when I was 17, I went to Montana for a month. And then my senior year [of high school] came, and I genuinely wanted to do this. And he’s seen me stick with this for 10 years. When you do fossil preparation, and you make progress the size of a dime, it’s a good day. So I didn’t know what to do for college – PhD, masters? And so that’s how Jason got me talking to Dr. [Kenneth] Lacovara. I learned two different sciences at the same time by two different people: A paleontologist learns how to hold bones, how to repair bones, look at bones in a different way. I learned that from Jason. And then how to think of an idea, do the research, read papers, think of procedures, put out a poster – I learned from Dr. Lacovara. Those two are my teachers.
And then, there was LSAMP, which helped me become a normal student (laughs). Because I’ve done research since summer after freshman year [at Drexel, through the S.T.A.R. program], and once you start on research, you don’t stop, it’s an addiction. So I’d like to think I’m a pretty smart cookie in my own field, but I need to excel in other classes, be well-rounded, and when I have a breakdown, say ‘It’s OK, you’ll get through this,’ and that’s what AMP helps me with. So I’d say my mentors have been from AMP, S.T.A.R., ‘Chewie,’ and Dr. Lacovara.”
How did the S.T.A.R. Program strengthen your skills in a way that you wouldn’t have experienced in the classroom?
“The plight of a biologist is that so many of our classes are just memorization. Admittedly, that’s good, because you need to know ‘That muscle goes there, and if it doesn’t, we got a problem.’ So I can understand why we have to memorize. But we can miss this other part, where we actually apply what we know. Having to do research with S.T.A.R., I get reinforcement with more experimental thinking. Research has taught me think, ‘What are a few different ways I can do this?’ Another thing research has taught me is to just ask. I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of things that support networking. I think people often feel, if I ask, will I be tested? Which isn’t how you should think. I learned if I want something, I gotta ask. So that’s why I like doing both [memorization and research]. I can memorize a lot, and then because I did, I can say, ‘Hey, will this work?’ Most of the time it doesn’t, but then I have more problems to solve! And I love problems – they give me something to do.”
In what way did this research experience challenge how you viewed your field? In what way did it affirm your previously held views?
“When I got to Montana, the first week I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a doctor instead, I can’t do this.’ I had bloody blisters all over my hands, it was hot, I felt gross. Fast forward to my third or fourth day there, I’m like ‘I can’t do anything but this.’ We were at this area where you can look along the cliff’s side, and bones are sticking out of the wall. When you look at that, it’s like you’re time-traveling. I was awe-struck. As a biologist, I can recognize that these bones are more than just fossils. These bones belonged to an animal – an animal that was very successful, that reproduced, had behaviors, predators – a whole ecological system. That is what that bone represents. So I couldn’t do anything but this.”
So what about ever becoming a doctor?
“I love the living, I love the dead, but the in between? Uh, no (laughs). When I was starting at the Academy, I thought paleontology was working in a lab: You go out to a field, you find bones, you bring them back, you prepare them, you describe them. Getting into Drexel and S.T.A.R., I realized paleontology is as diverse as biological fields. Paleontology isn’t just digging the dirt, it’s another part of biology, it’s interdisciplinary – you do a little bit of everything. I’m still a paleontologist, but I identify myself as a biologist who specializes in dead animals.”
When people marvel at things they consider ‘old’ – especially in Philadelphia, one of the foundations of our country – do you still appreciate that kind of relatively newer history?
“For me, that type of history is like an hour and a half ago. At the same time, it’s nice to marvel at how far humans have come. When you’re familiar with geologic time, you realize how small of a period we’ve been here, and that’s astounding. If the entire history of the universe is a year’s calendar, the first bacterial life isn’t until March. First hard-body life isn’t until Thanksgiving. Dinosaurs are here the week before Christmas and go extinct the day of Christmas. Humans get here 11:59 PM before the New Year. We just got here, and we’ve already made leaps and bounds. So yes, I can appreciate it.”
Philadelphia seems to be a mainstay in your life – you grew up here, you went to undergrad here and will remain here for grad school. What are some of the benefits of Drexel being located in Philly?
“Academy of Natural Sciences is the oldest natural history museum in the New World. We were the first to discover dinosaurs in the New World. My ‘academic genealogy’ goes back to the first paleontologist, and I feel I can’t make my lineage disappointed! I have to be the best paleontologist I can possibly be. It’s also a great city. When you think about the networking available, I feel you have to try to fail at your profession here. You have to be like ‘No, I’m not working today’ in order to not be successful. You just have to ask. Especially, asking to volunteer is a great opportunity. When I go to AMP meetings, I say ‘If you guys are interested in doing this or that, talk to me! Or talk to Marisol [Rodriguez Mergenthal], and she’ll talk to me!’ The ivory tower thing of science is that you expect people in white coats to be stuffy. Part of breaking that down is saying, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’ Admitting you have an unmet need and then asking to get involved is the best way to be successful here as a student.”
You have a minor in Spanish. What are some of your reasons you decided to study that, and where do you think you might travel now with that knowledge?
“I thought it would be an asset in my field. And I’m also learning Arabic. As a field person, a lot of my work won’t be done in the U.S. One of my professors works in Argentina, and I’d like to go there because there are big animals down there. The way it’s been described to me, during the time of these big animals, South America was attached to Antarctica, which was still attached to Australia, so these animals had 3 continents worth of food. So they got pretty big! (laughs).”
Did you anticipate pursuing a Ph.D. when you first arrived at Drexel?
“Yes, I knew that coming in. As long as you come in and say, ‘Here’s my plan, here are my ideas,’ they’ll find a way to make your schedule work. Especially once I took my minor up! I have no regrets. I’m not gonna say it’s easy, but it’s manageable. Drexel doesn’t set you up to fail. It sets you up for workplace rigor, and that separates us from other universities. I’m almost welcoming the challenge of an employer someday!”
If a younger peer at Drexel should hope to study a STEM discipline, what opportunities would you recommend that they take advantage of?
“In my program, we have a research credit, which I’d recommend. If I was coming into Drexel now, I’d do DragonsTeach, a new program. So when you graduate, you’d get a secondary teaching certificate. It’s different than being a teacher with a teaching background, because you’d have a science background. So that’s something I would’ve done if I had the chance. Also, go get tutored. I know in the AMP center, my freshman year, there was a room full of people doing calculus, chemistry, physics – we’d all table-hop for sessions. My other biggest piece of advice is to go to office hours for different courses. It’s better to admit that you’re behind than to not. The biggest thing is to ask somebody.”
Why would you recommend becoming a member of LSAMP?
“[LSMAP referred me to] Sa’eed [Abdul-Khabeer, of the Drexel Learning Center] my fall term senior year because I didn’t know how to time manage. I’m a senior – you’d think I’d know how to do this. But I was panicking, because I was applying to grad school, doing fellowships, gross anatomy labs and cell bio all in the same term. He sat me down, like he did freshman year, and said, ‘Show me your schedule, here’s how you should work.’ Because the program is small, they know you, what you’re doing, and what you want to do. And so you get this personalized experience. Their job is to make sure we’re successful, period. It’s also a really nice community; a lot of my friends are still really tight from our first day freshman year. Regarding how I got involved, I often think, am I to be the ambassador for all black paleontologists? There’s always that part of being a minority, and how you handle that is a complex problem. To help resolve it, you talk to the AMP community. You don’t shoulder that alone. You may feel that pressure, but AMP sees you as a student, that’s it. Someday, I want someone to see my name, see my research, and say ‘That’s the best paleontologist.’ That’s it. My race is something I was born with, not something I worked on.”
Biomedical Engineering, class of 2015
Claudia has worked as a research assistant in the Laboratory of Lymphatic and Cancer Bioengineering under Dr. Melody Swartz at the internationally recognized École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne. It was during her co-op at the medical device company Rex Medical that Claudia first experienced the importance of international and cross-cultural communication in research: She traveled to Argentina and Chile with a team of physicians and engineers, and being fluent in Spanish, was able to translate between Rex Medical and interventional neuro-radiologists during pre-clinical trials of a novel device.
Claudia participated in the S.T.A.R. (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Program at Drexel’s Vascular Kinetics Laboratory (PI: Dr. Alisa Morss Clyne) and will attend Mayo Medical School after graduating from Drexel. Claudia has previously held the President’s office in both the Drexel Salsa Dance Club and the Society for Women Engineers, in addition to being active in a number of other activities on campus.
What first sparked your interest in biomedical engineering?
“My dad’s an engineer; my mom’s a doctor. So, I grew up in a very science-y household. Neither of my parents pushed me to do anything, they just told me to pick what I liked. And I always ended up liking science. I went to a science magnet high school, Academy of Science of Loudon County, in northern Virginia. It was a school that was very nurturing, very encouraging. It wasn’t competitive once you were in; instead it was very much about finding your passion. I got to do a project using a polymer to sequester metal ions out of solutions – essentially simulating a new way to treat metal poisoning. That was the first time I did a project that was biomedical-related, and how I got interested in applying science to medicine. And then by my junior year [in high school], I realized I didn’t want to do anything else – I definitely wanted to do biomedical engineering.”
Were there particular mentors or programs that supported and drove your passion?
“My high school. I spent a lot of time there, working in the summers in the lab there. My junior year I took AP Calculus and found myself struggling in school for the first time in a long time. I used to be the smartest kid in my middle school, and then I get to high school and thought everyone else was a genius. However, I found that hands-on project, like doing research, was where I excelled. I actually placed as a semifinalist [of about 1,300 people] in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. That was the first time that I got to submit something to a competition, and then I went to a lot of science fairs and got experience going to research conferences in high school. In fact, the first time I came to Philly was for a research conference.”
What was your selection process in picking Drexel – was it because it has its own Biomedical Engineering School?
“I came to Scholars Day and met Dr. [Banu] Onaral, and I remember she told me ‘If you do really well here, we’ll take you places.’ And I genuinely believed her, and it turned out to be true. Also, I thought it was really exciting to have a female in charge of the biomedical engineering department – that meant that, in my opinion, she sees no boundaries. I could do 5-year BS/MS, which was awesome, because why wouldn’t I get my master’s? And I got a pretty large scholarship, and then I got into the S.T.A.R. program. Because I’d done research in high school, I understood the magnitude of what that meant. I knew that a guaranteed research experience after my freshman year would launch me forward. I felt like I could definitely succeed here, and then I did.”
How did S.T.A.R. relate to your co-op?
“S.T.A.R. is faculty-mentored research program where you get to pick the faculty mentor that you would like to work with. Dr. [Fred] Allen was the one who pointed me to my STAR mentor. He always does a meet-and-greet event with LSAMP, and I also knew him because he met my dad at Orientation, which shows the value of Orientation. So I went to him, and he gave me a name: Dr. [Alisa] Morss Clyne, in the mechanical engineering department. She has the Vascular Kinetics Laboratory. When I met her, I really liked her intensity, and she said, ‘If you do S.T.A.R., I want you to start working in my lab in the Spring term, that way you can jump into experiments in the summer.’ So I did cellular mechanics there, and I learned a ton of different lab skills: cell culture, imaging, and all these skills that were really transferable later. My co-op in Switzerland was very cell culture-based. It’s funny, whatever someone does for their first co-op is often what they end up doing later.”
How did co-op at Drexel strengthen your skills in a way that you wouldn’t have experienced in the classroom?
“My first co-op was at Rex Medical, a medical device company. For me, the coolest thing about co-op was learning about the medical device industry. I got to attend a trade show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and I’d never been to a trade show. So to see all these companies displaying the technology, and different start-up companies going to clients for whatever they needed, that was really interesting – to see networking, how to talk to different clients – the business side of it.”
Would you say this experience balanced out your research experience?
“Yes. If something didn’t work, you didn’t care as much about the mechanism [at Rex Medical]. In research, you want to understand the details behind why everything does or does NOT work. So that was very different. And people at Rex had great technical skills. There, their technical skills were much more valued rather than the degree the held.”
How did co-op hone your interests in your field, specifically toward lymphatic and cancer bioengineering?
“Co-op broadened my interests of the field. I had never considered the business-side of medical devices. Devices don’t always need to be the best, you just want a percentage of the market, so that from all the money you paid to make the device, you make a profit. The owner of the company, he’s an M.D. with an engineering background, and he’s also very entrepreneurial. And I was thinking, ‘I want to do that.’”
So that was Rex, and then you went to Argentina and Chile. Tell me about that.
“My experiences in Argentina and Chile were through Rex. I had offered to start translating documents from Spanish, which again showed me the business side of things. My parents are Costa Rican; my mother immigrated here when she was 25, my dad was 6 or 7.”
Was that an experience that made you realize that being a native Spanish speaker was an asset?
“I’ve always known it, because I saw my mom had struggle with being a non-native English speaker. She did her M.D. in Costa Rica, and when she moved to the U.S., she still needed to do all the board certifications. She didn’t know English, so in the beginning she was discouraged from pursuing different disciplines because people would say ‘You don’t know English, what are you doing here?’ When I was little, I would only speak Spanish. My mom went through all these struggles, but knew she could give me her Spanish and always made that very clear to me. So when I was translating these documents for Rex Medical, I got to be on conference calls with the lawyers, and go to all these different meetings for the clinical studies and learn protocols, which was really exciting for me. I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if I weren’t bilingual, and if I hadn’t gone on co-op through Drexel.”
At these clinical studies and meetings, what were you observing?
“All the physicians knew English, but they don’t use it every day, so I was there as a double-check, an extra security measure for both parties. For example, the engineer would say something to the doctors, and if he missed something, I’d chime in. So then we met with the CEO of that facility, a private practice, and they had the most successful stroke-saving facility with a physician physically onsite 24/7. What was really neat, from a business perspective, was that they were working with the Administration of Health of Argentina and doing a huge campaign on stroke awareness. So the Administration was doing a big health initiative to educate the country, a million-dollar health symposium. At the same time, that’s making money for the facility I was working at. It was neat to see it’s good for the country, and good for this business – essentially, seeing how business and health play together.”
In what way did the cross-cultural aspect of your time working in South America challenge how you viewed your field? In what way did it affirm your previously held views?
“It made me really interested in learning about health care in other countries, and how they solve health problems. I didn’t know there was a health care ‘problem’ in the U.S. until I came to Philly; I grew up in an affluent community. I grew up in a world where everyone has a job, so everyone has health insurance, and that’s it. So then to see how a private sector was teaming up with a government agency that was health-related, to help both sides, I thought that was unique in that it works for a country that’s not as big as the U.S.”
How did you continue to utilize knowledge of other languages at École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne (EPFL)?
“One of the reasons why I wanted to go to Drexel was that I knew there were co-ops abroad. My freshman year, I went to a biomedical engineering grad workshop, and I just remember seeing pictures of Switzerland, and hearing how amazing it was. The professor who gave the presentation had done a Whitaker: a fellowship for biomedical engineering grad students to go abroad. Grad school would be a ways away for me, but I wanted to know more about it. That same term, the Whitaker became an undergraduate fellowship. So it was perfect timing. A lot of things worked out, because the scholarship was only for three months, and I was going for six – so Steinbright Career Development Center (SCDC) matched it. Then, LSAMP gave me additional funding. I got to Switzerland, and I had thought I knew more French than I did – it was so overwhelming. I had a little notebook that I took everywhere with me, and I was listening intentionally and trying to go along. That was really hard for me, because I’m really social. Three months in, I took an intensive course, and now I speak pretty well. But it was really hard; I’d never felt like such a wallflower. I will say that the epitome of being able to speak another language toward the end was that I was working under Ph.D. students who’d all speak in French, but we’d respond in English. But you at least had to understand French. Because I was learning it, people respected me and were more welcoming. Even though I didn’t need it to work, it made a difference in the workplace.”
Would you recommend that people in STEM fields learn another language?
“Absolutely. I think it’s naïve to only know English. One of my friends had actually visited me in Switzerland, and he doesn’t know other languages but started picking up on some phrases, and cared. He was like, ‘Man I really wish I had learned another language.’ It’s little things; you understand where people are coming from better. If you didn’t know another language, it’s harder to assimilate. Oh, and another thing in Switzerland I wasn’t expecting: I would say I grew up in two cultures, so I thought I can totally handle any culture. But that’s so not the case. I never felt as detached as I felt in Switzerland.”
Did you learn more about business at your co-op in Switzerland, as you did in Argentina and Chile?
“At Rex, everyone was a key component, while if you’re working in a research lab as a post-doc, that’s your project. It can be lonely. It’s very individualized, and I realized that’s something I’m not interested in. I want to work with other people. But what was so cool, at EPFL, in the summer they had world-renowned scientists come in every week. I met Nobel laureates, I got their cards – it was the advantage of being at a prestigious European lab.”
If a younger peer at Drexel should hope to pursue a STEM discipline, what kinds of opportunities would you recommend that they take advantage of?
“I was the previous president of Society of Women Engineers here, and I started doing collaborations with the Fellowships Office and Undergraduate Research. Our Fellowships Office is pretty phenomenal – they’re winning more fellowships than Ivy League schools right now. So taking advantage of that office is huge, I’m always sending students there. I’m technically a Fellowship Student Ambassador. I recently convinced a student to go abroad and start that process. And the Office of Undergraduate Research, if you get accepted to a research conference they will help fund you, so I bug people: ‘You need to apply to this!’ Lastly, if I meet underrepresented minorities, I push them toward LSAMP.”
Why would you recommend becoming a member of LSAMP?
“Being part of AMP is another way to be recognized, which is a really great feeling. You feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself since you are changing the statistics of underrepresented minorities in STEM. It’s a customizable program – you can have everything from one-on-one advising, to learning about tutoring resources. Regardless of your background, the point is to encourage minority students to stay in STEM. I felt at first AMP wasn’t for me, because I already knew what I wanted to do at Drexel. But they made it very clear that I could play a dual role as a student and as a mentor. Whether you’re an up-and-coming student or an already stellar student, they want you in AMP. That was something I had to learn. It’s about being part of the change of creating a new face for disciplines. There are people in my cohort that I probably wouldn’t become friends with if I weren’t part of that group, because I’ve never had a class with any of them. So now we see each other all the time and are encouraging each other, so it’s a cool support network. AMP is about everyone being involved, not just those students who need help. If you want everyone to be successful, then everyone needs a role model. And when I realized that was the role I played in AMP, it made me really excited about it.”
How do you envision your career taking shape after you attain your MD? Did you anticipate pursuing an MD when you first arrived at Drexel? If not, when did Drexel start presenting new goals for you?
“I’ve known what I wanted to do for a really long time, which is weird, because most people don’t. I personally don’t like to identify as pre-med, as I don’t see college as a means to an end. I’m learning how to be an engineer, and then I’m going to med school. Going through the co-op program, that solidified it for me – meeting a physician-engineer at Rex was amazing for me. My second co-op led me into the business side of it. So now, I want to do an MD/MBA. Doing the co-op system showed me what MDs can do in the non-traditional settings. Yes, I’ll still go through residency and gain that experience, but 10 years out, I can definitely see myself starting an engineering company, or going into health care policy. And that’s what was so cool about the co-op program, because I could tailor my education to what I was interested in. Drexel reshaped my dreams that way.”