ALUMNI in PROFILE: Abigail Vogelaar
Abigail (Abby) Vogelaar (class of 2015) recently returned for a quick visit, and we took the opportunity to ask about life in her second year at Northeastern University in Boston.
The main focus of our chat was worms and their (surprising?) similarity to humans. More on worms later; the true takeaway was Abby’s success in broadening her studies in molecular biology out to include real-world work experience, a key factor in her decision to attend Northeastern and in her view a key to post-graduate career success.
Getting back to those worms: not just any old worm, but “C. Elegans.” As part of her work-study, Abby runs experiments on how worms age. The worms are on a strict schedule, which means she often has to return to the lab in the middle of the night to run tests or to take care of her charges—maybe not as “elegans” as she had hoped!
Abby expects that studying the worms will help scientists understand human aging, but in her next job her experiments will be more direct, as she probes the underlying genetic structure of hemoglobin and the human blood cell. As part of Northeastern’s “Co-op” program, Abby is heading to a well-paying 6-month work experience at the genetics start-up Editas this fall. The name refers to their ambitious plan to “edit” out of human genes the very source of some illnesses. With a molecular slicing-and-dicing technique called “CRISPR cas9”, they hope to use bacterial enzymes to locate, isolate, chop out and neutralize the genetic mutations that cause blood diseases like leukemia—true “cutting-edge” technology.
Abby credits Northeastern’s co-op and work-study opportunities for giving her three real advantages in the hunt for a good job after college. First, her three half-year co-ops will allow her to try out various aspects of her chosen field. She can explore alternative work environments—academic, corporate, and start-up—or different fields of research, or both. And each co-op unlocks better opportunities for the next.
In addition to giving students a clearer sense of their options and interests within their field of study, the co-ops obviously impart an enormous advantage in terms of work experience, recommendations, and connections to an employer. Abby notes that a significant number of students are offered permanent positions by their co-op employers upon graduation.
Northeastern’s co-op program has developed a vast network of partnerships and internship opportunities in the Boston area and the North East. For international students like Abby who are interested in work experiences further afield, students are supported in seeking out suitable internships abroad.
Abby also gives a nod to the support Northeastern students receive in a “co-op class”: developing cv’s, practicing job interviews, finding and negotiating rental leases, setting up bank accounts, credit cards, tax forms, and many other real-world skills that will be essential soon after graduation. As she puts it, students are “learning to be an adult before you have to be one, in a semi-sheltered, supportive environment.”
Abby notes that while some of those skills were covered at IICS, the new sense of urgency made the learning more real and more useful this time around. Other than that, she reports that “I don’t think my first year was significantly more work than DP” and that “DP prepares you well for having to manage your time between several classes to get things done.”
Abby is not uncritical of Northeastern. She sees its growing pains as the university and community rapidly develop, and she acknowledges that a focus on research occasionally relegates teaching quality to second place. But she praises the students for their dedication to their studies, and she cannot recommend Northeastern’s co-op program highly enough. “I just can’t imagine graduating without knowing about how these professions work” she says.
Interview and report by Kevin Burns, IICS department