Full Time in a company – undergraduate research amplified

October 10, 2010 at 4:34 PM

Full Time in a company – undergraduate research amplified


Ashley Pira NU’12 and Jim Stellar


Ashley and I wrote a post some time ago about breaking into undergraduate research in a neuroscience lab at Northeastern.  It drew a lot of attention at the time and we followed that with another post after she had really established herself in that laboratory. Recently, she wrote me an e-mail about her experience on a cooperative education placement working at a big science company and I asked her if we could write a third post now comparing these two forms of her experiential learning – undergraduate research and co-op.  So first is her e-mail.


J&J is great.  I’m really loving it.  I’m working on several projects that have clinical applications.  It’s really neat working on studies that could potentially lead to products on the market. Interesting stuff.  It’s a very different set-up from your or the other professor’s lab.  I’m also responsible for some of business of the study– budget, confidentiality agreements, contracts, etc. 


 Lately I’ve been taking the time to set up meeting with people in other departments, such as baby, beauty, oral health, etc. (I’m in the New Technologies group).  By the time I leave J&J in December, I’d like to have a good idea about the different aspects of the company and how each one works. 


I’ve been getting a little nervous lately because soon enough I’ll need to make some serious decisions about the future.  I’m leaning toward grad school now because I’m really loving industry research.  Masters? PhD?


What you write above gives me the feeling that you are getting even more opportunities in this big powerful company working for people outside the university that is challenging you in some ways that working in the very real world operation of a professors lab, but embedded in the university setting, did not.  Is that true and if so how?


Someone I met at J&J told me that you can be the best scientist in the world, but if you can’t think like a businessman too, it’s hard to survive at a consumer company.  Before coming to J&J, I never took time to consider the business of science research.  It’s been an eye opening experience.


How do you think your very sophisticated experience working with the professor (you got an abstract and are on your way to a scientific paper) prepared you for the company experience?


Without my experience at school, I wouldn’t be where I am today.  I mean that 100%.   Working in the labs taught me how to do research, how to gracefully work with others, how to balance a busy schedule, how to present, and how to write, among other things.  But, it also built my character.  I’m more persistent, confident, and willing to learn.  A large combination of these things got me where I am today and continue to help me everyday when I go to work.  My previous experiences have given me the confidence and ability to tackle new experiences.  I am so grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had at Northeastern.  They truly have laid the foundation for my future.


I want to return to something you said in your e-mail about post-BS plans you were originally considering between graduate or medical school.  How did this co-op help you to narrow it down?  Was it just the cumulative effect of working outside the classroom?  Was it working in an industry position and if so what about that contributed to your career thinking?


In the industry setting, I’m really getting the best of both worlds – the clinic and the research.  Participating in research that is directly applicable to the clinic requires me to be knowledgeable about medicine.  Obviously I’m not a doctor, but I have been required to learn about different pathologies, brain functions, nerves, muscles – you name it, chances are I’ve looked it up in the past 5 months.  My colleagues and I are constantly having conversations with doctors, surgeons, nurses, etc. for the sake of learning in order to optimize our potential products.   With this in mind, this job is causing me to seriously consider the possibility of graduate school.


The key for us in this post is authenticity –  as it has been in all of the others we have written before when Ashley first sought to be in a research laboratory and as she succeeded there in doing publishable scientific research.  Authentic opportunities take the student out of the infantilized mode of sitting and listening passively to a professor in a large class (in the worst case).  This does not mean that some techniques of teaching and some professors cannot reach students in the basic standardized format that is so common in higher education and so necessary to be financially efficient.  Both Ashley and Jim have had wonderful experiences in the classroom.  This does also not mean that a seminar where class participation is maximized is not an engaging experience.  But all of these are safe.  The student is necessarily protected.  Interestingly, in a lab (which does have protections for the student) there is no guarantee the experiment will work.  Many students waste their time pursuing blind scientific alleys or mistaken leads.  Of course this reaches its ultimate in the place of employment where the student is now part of a team of regular employees (often older) and treated as such.  Now these experiences have to be carefully selected and even then not all of them will be good, but all of them are authentic and that produces in good students a certain kind of rise in performance, self-confidence, and even aspiration.  Besides getting across the content, that is what education is all about.



From Montessori philosophy for elementary students to mentoring college students: The value of feelings in learning success

2 Responses to “Full Time in a company – undergraduate research amplified”

  1. Cynthia says:


    What continues to impress me when I read about students’ co-op experiences is not only the interesting and varied work their supervisors give them to perform but also the level of responsibility. Were you able to observe how the work of non-co-op employees in entry level positions at J&J compared to yours? In other words, to what degree did having co-op status earn you more challenging assignments from your supervisor and more of his/her advice and guidance?

  2. Jim Stellar says:

    I should probably not respond to your answer to Cynthia and let someone else have a chance, but I could not help but point out that it is precisely this moment when the student is mistaken for the regular employee that I think the deepest benefits to learning from experience happen. This is when the student ceases to become the intern and really gets to see what it feels like to be in the role of a member of that industry. It is also when the infantilization of the college years disappears and the real potential practice of the education sinks in, whether that leads to employment (maybe in that company) or graduate/medical/law school after college.

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