A Taste of the Real World (Video)

Summer internships let Vagelos Life Sciences and Management students put what they’ve learned into practice and guide them into the future.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

By Susan Ahlborn

Video by Alex Schein

Mia Yang, C’24, W’24, spent her summer helping validate potentially novel genes in the human eye at the biotechnology firm Regeneron. Gabriel Lopez Santiago, C’24, W’24, spent his in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center, testing drugs to see if they would inhibit the growth of a cancer cell line. Michael Ma, C’23, W’23, worked in the global healthcare group at Lazard, one of the world's leading financial firms, helping advise biopharmaceutical clients on strategic decisions.


They’re all still undergraduates, students in the Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management (LSM). LSM students earn two degrees, at the College and Wharton, to give them an understanding of both science and business so that they’ll be able to understand the path of scientific discoveries from the lab to the market. They all complete two paid summer internships, one in life sciences research and one in business, to grasp how what they’re learning can be put into practice.

“The internships give our students both learning experiences and opportunities to get a better sense of what they might like to do when they graduate, and perhaps equally importantly, what they might not want to do,” says Philip A. Rea, Professor of Biology and Rebecka and Arie Belldegrun Distinguished Director of LSM. “It’s one thing to read about and hear from others what a particular occupation is about. It’s another to find this out for oneself by actually living it through an internship.”

The internships are offered by employers across the United States and beyond.  They range from small biotech startups to big pharma, government or academic labs, non-profit organizations, investment banks, venture capital firms and consulting groups in the healthcare, biotech, or environmental sectors. “If there is one feature of the LSM program that would get me hooked as a young person, I think it’s the paid internships that would enable me to see for myself how the stuff we cover in our academic courses might be put to good effect while at the same time giving me a reality check between my expectations and what actually is,” says Rea.

“When I got [to MSK], I was given a general training, and once I was ready to do my own experiments and run them on my own, they gave me a specific cell line, which is actually taken from tumors,” says Lopez Santiago. “Tumorigenesis—the creation and growth and proliferation of a tumor—has been linked with an increase in a certain type of protein. I’m running experiments to see the protein expression of these cells.”

“We try to really throw them into the fire,” says David Solit, C’91, M’95, Director of the Kravis Center for Molecular Oncology at MSK, in whose lab Lopez Santiago worked. “In the classroom, there's a known result. The difference in our lab is that we're not even sure whether the experiment can be done or what the result will be, and so it's a different way of thinking and a different way of troubleshooting.”

Lopez Santiago got plenty of help and mentoring from Solit and the lab staff. “I was able to take on mentorship from various people at the lab,” he says. “People were essentially training me on how to do different experiments, and you get to see the differences between researchers and how they come up with protocols. Which speaks to the fact that you as a researcher have to look for the way that fits you the most. That's why we can't have robots running the lab—we need the human mind that's able to expand and do things on its own.”

Yang had the same experience with good mentoring. “On the very first day of my internship, my mentor pulled me aside for an hour and we got to chat about what I was looking to get out of this internship, some of the potential projects he wanted to put me on, and what sorts of skills I wanted to learn,” she says. “Having that one-to-one relationship of knowing exactly who I can go to has been really great, but also having a wider support network of all the ophthalmology group.”

It was the same on the business side, says Ma. “The mentorship was amazing. I went on coffee chats with basically everybody on the team, and I was able to have one–on–ones with the more senior people as well. I got to pick their brains a little bit and ask them their thoughts on a variety of questions.”

Ma says the summer let him bring together all the things he’s studied. “I immediately made the connection with the learning that I had in my cell biology class. And combining that scientific training with a finance degree is amazing because we not only get to approach a problem from a scientific perspective, but we also get to appreciate the big picture through a more strategic landscape overview and actually understanding what this means for a business on the long term.”

“The interns contribute to our group immediately. They come in as very thoughtful, smart people, and they’ve had this incredible education that is highly relevant to what we do,” says David Gluckman, WG’98, Vice Chairman of Investment Banking and Global Head of Healthcare at Lazard. “We try to give them an experience of how the heads of R&D, heads of corporate development, CFOs and CEOs, think about pushing science forward and advancing therapeutics. So then they have a toolbox they can draw on to dive very deeply into whatever they want to.”

Yang says of the work she did, “It’s been a really great deep dive into more basic cellular science, but at the same time, I've been able to see how we could extrapolate these findings into how the actual human eye might respond and potentially even how we could use these findings to treat diseases such as glaucoma.”

“Our hope is that by hosting the students here in the lab, that we can develop some of those future cancer researchers and motivate them to do that kind of discovery science that we really need to develop better treatments,” says Solit.

“It's been really refreshing to interact with scientists and hear about their passion for the science they're doing on a daily basis,” Yang adds. “And I think that has helped reignite my love for science and helped me figure some things out in terms of whether I want to continue doing research.”

“These students have sat alongside leaders in the industry at the bench or across the conference table,” says Steven Nichtberger, C’83, W’83, Co-Founder, Chairman, and CEO at Cabaletta Bio, and an LSM senior fellow and adjunct professor in Wharton's Department of Health Care Management. “They are fully prepared academically as well as from an applied, experiential perspective, to change the world.”

Jaclyn Chu, C’18, W’18, carried out her undergraduate internships at Taipei Medical University in Taiwan and at the Nationalities Services Center, a refugee resettlement center. The internships helped her clarify her strengths and goals. “It gave me good opportunities to explore where my tactical strengths were and reaffirm my passion and desire to work in the health care sphere post-grad," she says. "I got research experience but also the direct patient engagement experience versus also working behind the scenes in the office, looking at process improvements—a lot of different exposures to figure out what I liked and didn’t like.” She’s currently in a sweet spot as a senior associate at Mount Sinai Health Partners, part of a team that focuses on developing and implementing direct-to-employer health care plans.

“By the time they graduate, they're only 22 or so, but they have phenomenal acumen in both business and science, and very few people have that,” adds Lawton Robert Burns, Co-Director of LSM, James Joo-Jin Kim Professor, Professor of Health Care Management, and Professor of Management in the Wharton School. “The single biggest set of ambassadors for this program are the students.”