Faculty, alumni develop best formula to help students gain perspective about career paths

April 27, 2023

Located on the 10th floor of a highrise building with the skyline of Manhattan as the backdrop, Albion College students recently got a glimpse into a future that most had never envisioned.

“It was not what you expect to see when you think about seeing people conducting research in a lab,” said Dr. Craig Streu, ’04, professor of chemistry at Albion College.

Streu and fellow professor Cliff Harris, with the help and support of Albion alumni Barbara Weiskittel, ’83, Matthew Rice, ’90, Jim Wilson, ’77, and Peggy Sindt, ’73, took the students to Philadelphia and New York to allow them to visit biotech and pharmaceutical companies and speak to the people working there about potential careers.

“We were the first-ever college group to be invited to tour Merck’s international headquarters,” said Streu. “That happened because I had a conversation with Barbara, and she helped plan the trip.”

Founded in 1891, Merck is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. It has been at the forefront of developing drugs such as cortisone and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.

Weiskittel, who recently retired from a very successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, was familiar with the questions students might have. She had the same questions when she majored in chemistry at Albion.

“The trip was truly amazing. I was impressed with the students — seeing their expanding knowledge,” said Weiskittel. She heard them say things such as, “I now have more questions I can ask myself than I did before,” and “I never knew this existed,” as they were exposed to the three different labs and companies and heard each person’s path to a role or passion using their chemistry or biochemistry degree.

“I was indecisive about going to pharmacy school, so this trip exposed me to new possible careers,” said Brianna Lopez, a sophomore biochemistry major from Dallas, Texas. “I liked hearing about the different pathways these people in the industry took and how they moved up in the company — things they didn’t imagine doing during their undergrad. It gave me peace of mind.”

“It opened my eyes to the options that are there,” said Kaitlyn Pionkowsky, a senior from Grand Rapids majoring in biochemistry.

“The pandemic pushed (the trip) back a few years, but I was able to pick back up the discussion with Interim Provost Lisa Lewis, who referred me to Craig Streu last fall,” Weiskittel said. “Craig, with his energy, student-research focus and student dedication, has been the driving force behind this trip for Albion College students. Together, we started brainstorming ways to accomplish this opportunity and developed the framework for the trip East — encompassing the multiple face-to-face opportunities at Merck, Kallyope and Jim Wilson’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania as the main focus. The rest of the trip coalesced around these opportunities. It provided a well-rounded exposure to help expand the mindset of the students, many who had never considered the availability of these different roles, seen the inside of a pharma company or even traveled outside of the state of Michigan! We also set up some great contacts — including internship opportunities — for the students and future students.”

Students also visited the University of Pennsylvania’s Gene Therapy Program, run by Wilson, the Mutter Medical History Museum, Pennsylvania Hospital (America’s first hospital), the Science History Institute, bonded around a team-building glass-blowing event and visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell for good measure.

While Streu and Weiskittel had a solid plan for the trip, they still needed a way to pay for it that would not overburden the students. Financing flights, ground transportation, accommodations, and meals for 20 people in two of the country’s busiest and most expensive cities is challenging.

“Craig reached out to us to see if we had any ideas about how to pay for the trip,” said Kimberly Arndts, ’84, chief advancement officer for Albion College’s Office of Institutional Advancement. “We suggested that Craig speak to Interim Provost Lisa Lewis about the newly operational Sindt Experiential Learning Endowment from Peggy Sindt.”

Sindt, and her husband Conrad, ’69, established their endowment for this reason.

“Conrad and I were fortunate to experience meaningful outside-the-classroom activities while we were students,” Stindt said. “We established this endowment to ensure that other students now and in the future would have similar opportunities. It was our hope that these opportunities would enrich the college experience and perhaps even be life-changing for students.

“It was an amazing opportunity for students to visit several different companies, see the inner workings of corporations, learn about possible internship opportunities, be exposed to different kinds of uses for their chemistry degrees and have some fun with fellow students and with people they might otherwise never have met,” Sindt said. “Albion College students learn how to solve problems and to develop leadership skills. Experiential learning is an important part of that learning. Albion helped us prepare to be leaders, and I am pleased that we can be a small part of students honing their critical thinking skills and becoming future leaders.”

The endowment and the generosity of alumni covered the flight to Philadelphia, ground transportation, hotel accommodations, tickets to events and half of their meals.

It seemed only fitting that the trip was a success thanks to the efforts of several Albion College women of science, Streu said.

“That was an important theme of the trip,” Streu said. “Women in science. Eleven of the 18 students who went were women. We got to hear from Dr. Ann Weber at Kallyope and many other preeminent leaders in the pharmaceutical field.”

Weber is a senior vice president of preclinical development at Kallyope. She is a former senior research chemist at Merck whose work has led to more than 40 development candidates, including Januvia, for treating type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Weber was just one of several inspirational women in science that spoke with the group. The group also got a chance to talk with Dr. Shirley Pinto, the chief scientific officer of Kallyope, as well as Dr. Juliette Hordeaux, chief of translational research, Dr. Ann Kellam, senior director of research portfolio management, and Monique Molloy, chief administrative officer at the Gene Therapy Program at Penn. The group also took a Women in Science-themed tour at the Science History Institute.

“I’ve led many student trips, but this trip had more special moments than any trip I’ve ever had the opportunity to lead,” said Streu. “Lives were changed.”

And like most successful experiments, the trip has laid the groundwork for future Albion College students.

“This started as a one off but we are looking at ways to be able to do something similar again next year,” Streu said.