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TSRI Holds Inaugural Alumni Symposium

By Cindy Brauer

The Kellogg School of Science and Technology’s Inaugural Alumni Symposium, held last month on the California campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), reconnected and strengthened ties with TSRI’s growing community of former students

“[The event] was a “great success,” said Mike Matrone, program coordinator for the Career and Postdoctoral Services Office and the symposium organizer. “The day couldn't have gone more smoothly, and the feedback from the event has been tremendously positive."

This first-ever symposium spotlighting Kellogg School graduates represented an alumni community that has hit a critical mass—more than 450 in number. “The graduate program alumni are a young, dynamic group, whose members are now entering positions of leadership and influence in the life sciences community,” Jamie Williamson, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, told symposium attendees.

The day-long event, presented by the Kellogg School of Science and Technology, featured alumni presentations, a career panel, current student poster session, and late-afternoon networking reception. Attending alumni, who also toured labs and visited former advisors and mentors, represented graduating classes from 1996 through 2012. TSRI’s graduate program was founded in 1989, and its first commencement, the Class of 1993, graduated one student.

In his welcoming remarks, TSRI President Michael Marletta noted that “graduate students are the lifeblood of the institution.” He urged alumni to have fun at the symposium and to connect with current students, continue to be a part of TSRI graduation program and consider the institute “a second home.”

Career Paths and Lessons Learned

In featured talks, six alumni spoke not only of their scientific efforts, but also of their career activities since graduation. Speakers included:

  • Michael Dorrell (Class of 2004), associate professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University
  • Yan Jessie Zhang (Class of 2004), assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas
  • Christopher Yohn (Class of 1997), associate director of trait discovery at Sapphire Energy Inc.
  • Michael Burkart (Class of 2000), associate director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD)
  • Phyllis Frosst (Class of 2001), senior advisor for policy, communication and strategic alliances at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences
  • Pam Sears (Class of 1996), vice president of preclinical science and clinical development at Optimer Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Yohn said he participated in the symposium to share his experiences and career choices, “to show current students one possible route, i.e., my experience and career, so they could make informed choices moving forward.”

Sears presented a talk, in part she said, because “it’s helpful for students to hear from folks who have been in ‘pharma’ to get an idea of what it’s like in the larger world.” At the symposium, she was “impressed by what my colleagues have experienced and accomplished, as well as intrigued by the diversity of what they’ve done.”

Network, Network, Network

Offering job-seeking guidance, three alumni participated in a career panel: Dong-In Koo (Class of 2011), clinical research coordinator for Moores UCSD Cancer Center; James Graziano (Class of 2006), COO of biotech start-up Fabrus Inc.; and Melanie Nelson (Class of 1999), program manager and group leader of information management for Dart Neurosciences.

The panel presenters were united in their advice for today’s graduate students—learn to network. “The most important thing I learned in grad school, besides being a good scientist, is the networking,” said Graziano. “Work for a PI who knows a lot of people and can help you get a job or open doors with just a phone call,” he suggested. “Go to as many organizational, association and industry meetings as possible. Collect business cards from the people you engage with at these meetings.”

Nelson also noted the importance of sending a good cover letter with every resume. “Both should be customized to the job at hand,” she said.

A Fresh Perspective

TSRI graduate students appreciated hearing the alumni’s point of view. Jessica Bruhn-Johannsen of the Ollmann-Saphire lab noted, “It’s nice to see where people have gone—where we can be in a few years.”

Matrone felt the most memorable moments of the day were the alumni introductions offered by their former advisors and mentors. “For the audience, these introductions provided a perspective of each alumnus as a graduate student at TSRI. For the alumni, I hope their introductions provided a sense nostalgia and of appreciation of their time at TSRI and of their accomplishments since graduation.”

He expects the symposium to become a bi-annual event.

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Michael Burkart, Jonathan Rosenblum, Phyllis Frost, and Michael Dorrell (left to right) were among those attending TSRI's first alumni symposium, which featured presentations by alumni, posters by current students, and a networking reception. (Photo by Cindy Brauer.)