The lessons of UPOP ring true for UPOP alum GiHun Choi ’17.
Network. Communicate. Never burn a bridge. These are all UPOP lessons that bio-engineering student GiHun Choi ’17, a UPOP alum, took to heart as he navigated his internship opportunities.
“I wouldn’t have met Carl without UPOP, that’s for sure,” says Choi of Carl Beckett SM ’02, who became his supervisor at Covaris, Inc. Eventually.
It was Beckett, vice president of business development at Covaris, who gave Choi the chance to become lead author on a nanotechnology paper—a great opportunity, which Choi seized with zeal. But this came many months after Beckett, who has hired several UPOP interns, had originally offered him a sophomore summer internship. “He turned me down!” Beckett exclaimed.
So Choi spent his UPOP internship at a big pharmaceutical company, Boehringer Ingelheim, in Connecticut, instead of heading to Covaris, a smaller, privately held technology company based in Woburn, Mass. But he kept in touch with Beckett throughout his junior fall semester.
“Yes, he turned me down,” continued Beckett, “But here’s the thing: he did it in a way that didn’t burn any bridges, and the door was still open when he came knocking again.”
“I kept in touch with Carl in a genuine mentor-mentee relationship,” said Choi. “I’d ask him for some advice, and he would help me sort out my thoughts. I was able to maintain the relationship, and could see that he really wanted to work together.”
This led to a fruitful internship experience in the January of Choi’s junior year, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP). As his original Covaris internship project wound down quickly, Choi asked Beckett, “Can you give me more work?” Well, yes: there was a paper started by an earlier UPOP intern, Leah Schmitz ’16, that could be finished, written up and sent for publication. “‘Why don’t you go do that,’” said Beckett to Choi. “And he went and did it! That’s what I love about working with these MIT interns.”
For Choi, the project was all-consuming. “I’ve never worked so hard! I read at least fifteen papers a day to absorb what the field was about—it was something I’d never been exposed to. I just read and read and read. I would read on the train, read at work …”
“From our point of view,” said Beckett, “we would never have gotten it out the door. We have other priorities. He had the ability to absorb those fifteen papers a day, put them in context, and translate that into the paper … And it required no motivating on my part. No energy. All I had to do was allow it, to clear out of the way so he could go after it.”
The result: “Continuous manufacturing of carboxyamidotriazole-encapsulated nanoemulsions using adaptive focused acoustics: Potential green technology for the pharmaceutical industry,” by GiHun Choi, Srikanth Kakumanu, Leah Schmitz, Gary LWG Robinson, Carl D. Beckett, James A. Laugharn Jr., published online February 1, 2016. (The full paper is here.)
“I ended up valuing the experience as much as the product,” says Choi. “Actually writing the paper, interacting with my co-workers, making certain the information was correct, what could be expressed better—that was definitely one of my key experiences.”
He found especial insight in comparing the mindset of a commercial company with that of the academic world. “It was our purpose to reach as many people as quickly as possible” with the results of the technology breakthrough. “It was a refreshing moment for me! In an academic lab, what they are aiming for is more like building another layer of foundational knowledge. But what industry wants is to speedily develop products or therapy that can go from lab to patient.”
The whole process of interacting with his co-workers over the paper reinforced, for Choi, UPOP’s emphasis on communication and presentation skills, which was one of the reasons he joined UPOP in the first place.
“But I got more than I expected,” he said, referring to his training during the UPOP January 2015 workshop. “I was so uncomfortable! It was the first time I had to face the reality about communicating and presenting. I realized I needed a lot of practice!”
So he rehearsed communication skills, verbal and written, over and over with UPOP staff, and went on to participate in as many conferences and poster sessions as he could.
“One of my UPOP IAP workshop mentors told me, ‘It doesn’t matter how great your idea is; if your idea isn’t communicated well, it will stay as an idea, never a product.’
“That always lingers in my mind,” he said, and helps him keep his work as a scientist in a sober perspective. “I used to be very stressed by grades—each ‘B’ was mind-blowing for me!” But then, to his great sorrow, his beloved grandmother died, prompting some deep reflection on illness and disease. Later, at an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Annual Leadership Summit, “there was a patient suffering from ALS who raised his hand and asked, ‘When is the treatment going to be out? Because looking at how FDA trials are, all the patients in this room will be dead, even if we know the treatment right now.’
“I realized that, especially as a life scientist, I shouldn’t be frustrated about grades. I should be really frustrated that I’m not being able to make an impact about saving these people who are dying right now.
“I began to understand that there’s more than getting the perfect grades. I should really be trying to get the experience needed to make myself grow, and develop the skills needed to make the maximum impact. That’s my goal. I really want to be able to tackle some of the complex problems in society.”
It’s a perspective, he says, that “helps me practice communication, so that my idea doesn’t stay an idea but becomes something tangible.”
Networking, communicating, and never burning a bridge: UPOP lessons taken to heart by a student intent on making a difference in the world.