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The Opportunity Journey: Innovative Program Prepares Next Generation Scientists

January 17, 2019

According to Brian Keith, Ph.D., Wistar dean of Biomedical Studies, basic cancer research unravels the complex cellular and genetic mechanisms that underlie disease, and spurs the development of new, rationally designed therapies to ultimately improve patient outcomes. “We strive to help our students broaden their perspective and expand the diversity of viewpoints to comprehend how these incredibly complex processes work,” said Keith.

In the first year of the Program, students take graduate classes and serve as teaching assistants in undergraduate courses, while performing rotations in prospective thesis research labs at Wistar or USciences. In the second year, students take additional courses on basic cancer biology, molecular screening and translational research at Wistar, and begin their own laboratory research projects that will lead to their Ph.D. degree.

“Our program targets outstanding students that might not have the opportunity to train in some other highly competitive Ph.D. programs, but share a great drive, motivation and have extensive experience so that they can hit the ground running,” said Keith.

Many of the students in the Wistar/USciences Ph.D. Program have spent time working as lab technicians after college and have acquired critical skills while in the workforce. Joseph Zundell is one of those promising students. He works as a predoctoral researcher in the lab of Rugang Zhang, Ph.D., deputy director of Wistar’s Cancer Center and professor and co-leader of the Gene Expression & Regulation Program. Next year, he will defend his thesis and then spend three to four years as a postdoctoral fellow in a new lab and city, with his eye set on finally running his own lab.

“The Program is a great experience. It was demanding to teach and juggle a full class load, but this was good practice to make me a well-rounded scientist and contribute to my end goal,” said Zundell. “I know this Program and the cachet of working at The Wistar Institute will open up many opportunities.”

Each of the students who have already completed the Wistar/USciences Ph.D. Program in cancer biology have published first-author papers in leading journals, including Nature, PNAS and Cancer Discovery, and many have received prestigious awards, fellowships, and grants, including a coveted F99/K00 Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Transition Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Wistar has long believed real world know-how through practice is a teaching keystone. Our principal investigators are global leaders in basic biomedical research in cancer and infectious disease, as well as mentors to accomplished predoctoral and postdoctoral fellows that will go on to lead successful labs or take top scientific positions in the pharmaceutical or life sciences industry.

The concept of real-world experience is central to Wistar’s education and training philosophy and has served its programs well for years now:

  • the High School Summer Fellowship in Biomedical Research, an immersive summer course where top high school students carry out bench research under the guidance of a dedicated mentor;
  • the Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) Program through which a class of Community College of Philadelphia students receive extensive lab training to become generalist technicians within the burgeoning life sciences industry; and
  • Wistar’s first-in-country, state credentialed, Biomedical Research Technician (BRT) Apprenticeship, which offers additional training to BTT graduates to become specialized life sciences technicians with experience working in multiple labs.

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