CES Workforce Programs lead to multiple opportunities

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Article Author: Martha Maloney
Publication Name: Collaborative for Educational Services
Article Date: February 6, 2023
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In the spring of 2020, while the world was in lockdown and schools remote, CES Director of Workforce Programs Matt Rigney thought about ways to continue assisting students as part of his work as director of the STEM@Work Paid Internship Program. Rigney had been involved for years with connecting students to internships and working on the foundations that students would need to launch into the workforce, and knew it was important that this work continued, despite many other programs being put on hold. 

Rigney developed a number of mini online workshops for students that spring, focusing on skills such as resume writing, cover letter writing, and interview skills. He noticed that one student in particular was quick to sign on for anything that was offered. Krish Poudel of Amherst Regional High school, then a sophomore, says that he signed up for these offerings because “getting these skills down was a key to success for me.”  

Poudel had been interested in entering the medical field since middle school. He had seen his uncle pass away in Nepal and then his father struggle with illness after contracting a rare parasite while traveling to Cambodia due to limited available medical care.

Soon after the mini workshops, Krish connected with Rigney about the externships program that Rigney was working on, connecting students to experience working in STEM fields. These externships provided each selected student with twenty hours of intensive submersion to learn more about work and career opportunities. Poudel applied, and soon began working with Experience Externships, focused on cybersecurity. “I got the opportunity to work in both defensive and offensive cybersecurity. It was an amazing experience, I had so much fun,” said Poudel.  After his 20 hours were completed, Poudel was selected as one of the standout students from the initial program and was asked to return as a Teaching Assistant for the next wave of students. Although Krish found the work exciting, his focus on a future in the medical field didn’t change.

In February of 2022, Rigney was approached by a contact at UMass who was working with a professor at the university. Dr. Govind Srimathveeravalli was looking for an addition to his team that would be part of his work with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK is an institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)). This research experience was focused on biomedical engineering, an area that Poudel had been especially interested in exploring, so the timing was perfect.   

“I applied through the National Institutes of Health’s STEP-UP program. It required an application, personal statement, and multiple recommendation letters. It is a nationally competitive program, and I was ecstatic when I got in.” The work started in July of 2022, but Krish began training in MATLAB and Onshape CAD software in January to be prepared. 

Krish works on two projects at a time under the mentorship of Dr. Srimathveeravalli. The first project was a Bioimage analysis project.  “I was looking at different histologies – metastatic lung tissue and metastatic prostate cancer in mice. The goal was to analyze these and create a script and automate the analysis to evaluate the efficacy of different cancer treatments. It was amazing. I taught myself the Fiji Macro language and then created a script to analyze all these histologies to extract information about the tumor area, the number of tumors within the total tissue area, and worked with other students in the lab to analyze the data.” Examining treatment efficacy in mice can extrapolate to help humans in the future. The results of the analyses are included in a recent paper published in Frontiers in Immunology (5th most cited immunology journal in the world) and Poudel received co-authorship of the paper. “I am so honored to have this research experience under Dr. Srimathveeravalli’s mentorship and be a part of the published paper. I could not have asked for a better research mentor. Dr. Srimathveervalli cultivated my skills as an independent thinker and collaborative researcher by providing tailored mentorship and projects building off of my current skill set to exploring completely novel ideas. I will forever be grateful to him for providing me my first real exposure to the field of biomedical engineering and all of his support and mentorship throughout the summer and year.” As this project is now finished, Krish will receive a new project soon.

The second project currently being worked on involves building a novel decellularization system capable of generating biocompatible scaffolds/tissue grafts from cellulose-based products such as spinach. The theory is that people eat vegetables regularly, so a cellulose-based graft will most likely be accepted by the donor’s immune system. The spinach scaffolding will be tested with human blood and with HEK kidney organoids, in-vitro and in-vivo, which would indicate potentially viable scaffolds are being produced by Poudel’s device. According to Krish, if everything goes well, this could be the first step at combating the organ-donor crisis by making more accessible scaffolds/grafts available to those who need them.

“This has been the most shaping experience of my life, I am really grateful to Matt for this.” For his part, Rigney found that the initial placement for Krish came not only with pay, but also prestige for Krish, which helps to build a foundation for his future plans. Rigney noted that Krish qualified for the national program, and this work also fell under the umbrella of the STEM@Work Paid Internship Program, so Krish had more time to work with the research.  He has now finished the NIDDK STEP UP program, and continues the research as part of STEM@Work for an additional 250 hours. 

Krish is president of his class at Amherst Regional High School, and spent 10 years in Scouting, culminating in his Eagle Project, which saw his troop and volunteers across three cities, under his leadership, plan, develop and build a library for the Bhutanese refugee community during the pandemic. Krish is committed to having a career where he can combine medicine and biomedical engineering and is currently applying to colleges that have a combined BS/MD programs. Krish wants to work with underserved communities and address health disparities. “This is so important to me.”  

Krish has applied to a number of colleges, including some with a BS/MD program and has received multiple acceptances to date. While he waits for the last of his applications to be processed, he is finishing up his final months in high school. 

In reviewing his time with the programs developed by Rigney, Krish concludes “Matt’s help and support over the years have been pivotal to shaping the direction of my entire life. During the pandemic, Matt set me up with a virtual internship at the Jimenez Lab at UMass Amherst. Over the summer, I was able to attend weekly lab meetings at the graduate-level where I gained exposure to complex research areas in biomedical engineering (e.g., drug-eluting stents, fluid flow mechanics, etc.). From this initial exposure to biomedical engineering (BME), a visceral passion sparked for BME that, combined with my pre-existing passion for medicine, clarified my visions/plans for the future. From there, Matt continued connecting me with research programs and supported me through the application by reviewing my personal statement and resume. I am really grateful to Matt for not only helping me find my passion, but for shaping me into a competitive candidate capable of gaining admission to nationally-selective programs. Ultimately, the skills Matt has taught me will allow me to achieve my goals of becoming a culturally competent physician-engineer, capable of providing personalized medical care, addressing health disparities, and innovating in the field of BME.”

Learn more about the CES Workforce Development Programs here.

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