As an undergraduate at Kettering University, Désirée Schenk ‘11 acquired experience that put her ahead of the curve in graduate school.
After choosing to attend Kettering for its Biochemistry program, she earned her doctorate degree at Purdue University and now works for a Boston-based biotechnology startup for nearly three years.
At the startup, Schenk develops tests to determine whether a cancer patient has genetic markers that indicate a specific drug would better target the cancer cells than chemotherapy. The startup then sells the tests to a certified lab that runs the test or that uses it for research.
Pharmaceutical companies are developing immunotherapy drugs, which target driver genes in a cancerous tumor. The drugs are more effective than chemotherapy because they are specific and are less likely to kill healthy cells.
She learned the basics of the skills she uses to develop the tests by doing research as an undergrad in the classroom and her co-op. The co-op program was one of the main reasons Schenk chose Kettering University. The opportunity to begin in her co-op immediately as a freshman, combined with the opportunity to study Biochemistry, were key factors in her decision to attend Kettering.
Kettering also allowed Schenk to do research and write publications as an undergraduate, and she entered a biomedical engineering doctorate program at Purdue University with more experience than most students. Her doctorate program advisors appreciated her experience.
“It was easier for me to get to the questions to develop and ask,” she said.
Working with Biochemistry faculty member Montserrat Rabago-Smith, Schenk conducted research on catechins, a compound found in green tea and many different types of fruit, and how they work as antioxidants.
That work allowed Schenk to put into perspective what lab time means. In a course, students are in the lab for a set amount of time. Schenk left her Wednesdays open for lab time and learned how to organize her time and determine which questions to ask. She also learned how to read literature, a key part of her work with Rabago-Smith.
“It’s all an accumulation of knowledge,” she said.
Schenk advises students to ask what they are doing and why they are doing it, whether in the classroom, lab or co-op, in order to thoroughly understand the work and the ultimate goal. For example, she took analytical chemistry after a co-op semester at General Motors, which made the notoriously difficult class much easier because she understood what she was doing and why.
“Get as much out of it as you can,” she said. “Most people want to teach you. If you really gain an understanding, people appreciate that. Understanding allows you to apply it to other problems.”
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