Oh, the Places Grads Go

May 8, 2019

Whether their career ladders lead to industry, academia or entrepreneurship, Duke BME gives PhD students a leg up on post-grad life

Robert Kirkton works in his lab at Humacyte, where he develops off-the-shelf human blood vessels that can be implanted in patients during surgery.

Robert Kirkton works in his lab at Humacyte, where he develops off-the-shelf human blood vessels that can be implanted in patients during surgery.

Like many PhD students in Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Erika Moore wasn’t entirely settled on what career to pursue after graduation. As she worked in Jennifer West’s lab, Moore had explored research in tissue engineering and biomaterials. Her main research project involved using immune cells to encourage blood vessel development within engineered tissue scaffolds.

Initially, she thought this work would lead her towards a career in the biomedical industry. But after completing an internship at a large company the summer before her fifth year in the program, she didn’t feel as enamored with that option.

“I knew I wanted a career I would never get tired of, and a job where I could interact with  different researchers,” says Moore. “Although working in industry was a beneficial experience, it triggered a period of reflection for me. During that time I leaned heavily on resources for Duke PhD students to explore a wider range of career options than I’d previously considered.”

Erika MooreIn addition to speaking with West and other BME faculty, Moore attended seminars offered through Duke’s PhD Plus Professional Development Program, which prepares engineering students for success in their post-graduate careers. The sessions gave her an opportunity to speak with a variety of professionals about different aspects of their jobs: what they liked, what they  didn’t, and what advice they had for imminent graduates. These conversations, she said, pointed her in a surprising direction––back into academia.

Since graduating from Duke BME in the spring of 2018, Moore has accepted a position as the Rising Star Larry Hench Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida. During the first two years of her appointment, Moore will conduct research as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she’ll create her own biomaterials-focused lab.

“There’s a very robust amount of professional development resources available to Duke BME PhD students, and I think those resources allowed me to move on to the next professional level more comfortably than other people do,” says Moore. “I was also able to meet with my committee members fairly frequently, and they were very open and encouraging not only for my PhD, but also for career advice, which was helpful as I was planning to move into my new role. I was able to make this large network of support in the department.”

Each year, more than half of Duke BME PhD graduates go on to careers in industry or entrepreneurship, and more than a third continue in academia through post-doctoral fellow or faculty positions. To support students as they pursue an array of different career options, Duke BME encourages PhD students to participate in development programs, like PhD Plus, or attend events aimed at improving presentation and writing skills. Students can also participate in interdisciplinary research programs like MEDx, a collaborative program between the Pratt School of Engineering and the Duke University School of Medicine, and the Duke-Coulter Translational Research Partnership to broaden their research collaborations both inside and outside of the department.

“When our students are in the program they are exposed to a diverse range of research opportunities, and this diversity is then mirrored in the range of career opportunities available to them after graduation,” says Joel Collier, the director of graduate studies in Duke BME. “There’s a true spirit of collaboration in this department, so there are few barriers to the range of avenues students are interested in.”

This in-depth and collaborative research experience is an asset to graduates like Robert Kirkton (PhD’12), who completed his doctoral research in Nenad Bursac’s lab. His work in helping to create electrically active replacement tissue to “patch” damaged tissue after a heart attack—drew on expertise both inside and outside the lab.

“When I got to Duke I found myself surrounded by highly motivated and intelligent people from diverse technical backgrounds,” says Kirkton. “You could easily collaborate with people that had expertise in molecular and cellular biology, computational and mechanical engineering, materials science, or clinical practice, for example. It was a great place for me to see that when you identify the right team, you can really make a lot of progress on a problem.”

Kirkton is now the associate director of new product development at Humacyte, a biotechnology and regenerative medicine company in Durham that develops tissue engineering products based off research conducted at Yale, MIT, and Duke University. Although he no longer works with cardiac cells, Kirkton draws on his lab experience from Duke BME to aid in his current work, which involves developing off-the-shelf bioengineered human blood vessels that can be implanted in patients suffering from vascular diseases or in need of vascular repair or replacement.

“My time at Duke really prepared me for my current role, whether it’s through my experience with scientific techniques, experimental design, or my ability to reach out to new contacts and start collaborative projects,” says Kirkton. “Duke BME taught me that a synergistic effort is required when tackling complex biomedical issues, and maintaining that collaborative mindset has been vital to the success of my work at Humacyte.”