Bioengineering senior Julia Stillman shares her six-month co-op experience with Merck and tips for other students
Julia Stillman (BIOE’22) is a senior in bioengineering with a minor in psychology and on the therapeutics track. She is also an undergraduate researcher in bioengineering professor Catherine Best’s Cellular Neuroscience Imaging lab. We interviewed Stillman about the details of her six-month-long co-op with the global pharmaceutical company, Merck. Stillman shared how she found this opportunity, how Merck shaped her future career idea, ways her bioengineering curriculum benefited her during this experience, projects she worked on, and some advice for others searching for internships or co-ops!
Why did you choose Merck as your co-op?
I chose Merck because I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to work on an exciting project at a multinational company with a drive for innovation. What really stood out to me was Merck’s diversity and inclusion initiatives because I greatly value diversity in company culture.
How did you find this opportunity?
I was interested in working for Merck so I searched and applied for internship and co-op positions through Merck’s careers website.
How is this co-op different from an internship?
My co-op assignment was six months long (July-December) as opposed to internships which are usually 10-12 weeks long. Because of the longer duration of co-ops, you can get a more in-depth experience working on a project. Fortunately, COVID restrictions were lifted so I could go to Cambridge, MA to work onsite for the majority of my co-op. While I did not take any bioengineering classes during the semester, I did take some remote classes for my psychology minor and Gen Ed requirements. This co-op gave me the opportunity to live in a new city and explore the biotechnology/pharmaceutical hub near MIT in order to get a better understanding of what it would be like to work there full-time.
What projects did you work on while at Merck?
I was able to work on my own project of developing a high-throughput THP-1 Lucia NF-kB Luciferase assay to screen Merck’s core Mechanism of Action set. Then, I designed and optimized an automated protocol to efficiently execute assay experiments using a robotic arm, automated liquid handling instruments, and a microplate reader. During my downtime, I observed or helped with various other projects where I got valuable, hands-on learning experience.
Were you able to apply any knowledge or skills from your BIOE classes in your co-op? If so, which classes and skills?
I applied the skills I learned from BIOE 202 Cell & Tissue Engineering Lab. I worked at a wet lab hood so it was useful to be familiar with how to work in a BSL2 lab. Some skills that I used in my co-op are aseptic and mammalian cell culture techniques.
What was the most valuable thing you learned at Merck?
The most important thing I learned from my experience at Merck is to ask questions. I used to think it was bad to show that I didn’t understand something. However, all the people I worked with were very encouraging and allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and learn so much more about the science behind experiments and Merck as a whole.
How has the experience at Merck shaped your future career ideas?
Working at Merck in their Exploratory Science Center solidified my desire to be in the pharmaceutical industry because I found myself feeling content and proud of the work I was doing in early drug discovery. I want to be a part of projects that improve people’s lives through state-of-the-art medicines and vaccines, and I think I can accomplish that through this industry. In addition, Merck had a very diverse group of scientists so I was able to ask questions about their career journey and get insight on the different areas of the pharmaceutical industry. Because of their advice, I am more confident about wanting to pursue a career in pharma.
Anything else you would like us to add?
I want to add some encouragement to anyone who’s currently searching for internships, co-ops, or jobs. I know it can be overwhelming to feel imposter syndrome and/or stressed about your future, but your hard work will pay off! I had probably applied to a hundred positions and only got a handful of interviews. However, all that rejection acted as redirection to this one dream offer at the end of the spring semester. I would recommend getting out of your comfort zone because I thought I wasn’t qualified enough but this opportunity ended up being better than I could’ve imagined. I enjoyed my time at Merck and it was amazing to explore a new city by myself. I hope this was helpful to anyone looking into co-ops or Merck and best of luck with your job search!