Nurturing diverse biomedical engineering talent
Since learning about rare genetic diseases as a child, Sydney Anderson has wanted to develop treatments and cures to improve the quality of life for those suffering.
As an Ohio State biomedical engineering PhD student, Anderson is one step closer to fulfilling that goal. Working under the guidance of Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Aleksander Skardal, she is investigating adrenocortical carcinoma—a rare cancer of the adrenal glands that has less than a 10% five-year survival rate. Her research focuses on the genetic aspects of what causes adrenocortical carcinoma and what makes the tumor so aggressive.
“In her relatively short period of time at Ohio State, Sydney has shown talent as a very outside-of-the-box thinker,” said Skardal. “She’s taken published literature and her scientific knowledge and synthesized some very creative ideas. This is a great characteristic, and with the right training and mentorship, can be honed into an immensely important scientific skill and tool.”
Anderson received one of only 12 Discovery Scholars Fellowships awarded by the College of Engineering last year. Since that fellowship covers her tuition, she took extra classes throughout her first year of graduate school.
“I took as many classes as I could,” said Anderson, who earned a 3.925 GPA. “I was having a ball and because of that, I'm about a semester or two ahead. So I'll be doing [PhD] candidacy early.”
After earning her PhD, Anderson wants to apply her passion for science and engineering expertise to policy writing and research at the federal or international level to help address the disparities in health care and environmental challenges.
But this ambitious and caring graduate student wouldn’t have become a Buckeye without critical donor support that, in combination with fellowship funding, enabled the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) to make a competitive offer to secure the top-notch candidate.
“Financial support was absolutely critical,” Anderson explained. “Throughout the school year I learned how much of a blessing it was to be able to take extra courses, rotate labs and have that knowledge that I absolutely belong here because I have this to prove it.”
A thoughtful donation from distinguished biomedical engineering alumnus Theodore Nicholson (MS ’09, PhD ’10) provided the necessary support to secure Anderson’s acceptance. His gift established the BME Graduate Student Support Fund, which aims to boost diversity among the department’s graduate student population.
“If we don't have a diverse set of graduate students, it's very hard to make impacts in health care disparities or other types of biomedical engineering applications,” explained Samir Ghadiali, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “I'm proud of how the department has diversified our faculty and students. And beyond that, we have instituted mentoring programs and other initiatives to help all of our students succeed—including students from underrepresented backgrounds.”
In a field where graduates can earn $60,000 to $90,000 after receiving a bachelor’s degree, convincing engineers to pursue advanced degrees is difficult.
“Only about 15% to 20% of undergraduates nationally will go on to a graduate degree. That small sliver? Everybody is vying for them,” said La’Tonia Stiner-Jones, associate dean of graduate programs for the College of Engineering. “In order for us to remain competitive, we have to be able to fund them.”
More than 90% of the college’s PhD students receive full funding offers, which include a monthly stipend, tuition and fees, and cover 85% of student health insurance costs. But in the current environment of reduced state support and federal research funding, providing competitive offers is challenging. Philanthropic gifts that support graduate students provide a critical way to bridge that gap.
“We have been at a competitive disadvantage at Ohio State for a while because our stipend levels and tuition levels were just not competitive with the packages offered by other institutions,” said Ghadiali. “Offering prospective graduate students a five-year package and a competitive stipend level is the key.”
As the director of software for Alio Inc., co-founder for startup IASO Automated Medical Systems and owner of a medical device consulting firm, Nicholson sees a critical need for more engineers with a background in medical devices.
“Society needs individuals with these skills and expertise, so it's very beneficial not only to the individual, but to the collective,” he explained. “Whoever this gift helps, the bigger impact will be in what they'll be able to do and the problems they can solve with the training they’re given.”
The BME Graduate Student Support Fund gives special consideration to candidates with an undergraduate degree from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The BME department is working to develop relationships with HBCUs and expand their outreach to tap into that critical talent pipeline.
“As someone who has gone through this pathway, I want to create a connection point to this vast amount of individual creativity and curiosity that exists at these other institutions,” said Nicholson, who completed his undergraduate studies at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. “The issue is not these students’ interest or ability, it's usually resources to attend these institutions.”
By making the first gift that supports BME graduate students, Nicholson is “setting a precedent,” Ghadiali said. And with a few more contributions, the department could recruit cohorts of students each year.
“Graduate students are the heart of our entire program,” Ghadiali said. “Not only do they do research, but they’re teaching assistants. If we don't have high-quality graduate students, nothing else in the department is going to work.”
This article originally appeared in Forward 2021-22, the college’s annual philanthropy report. Read the full issue.
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, email@example.com