This In Focus story is a part of The Student Researcher series.

Program Helps BioSci Students Explore Careers

Two students look at how the ankle muscles work in a class exercise.
Madison Sainte-Agathe, left, and Bryce Howard, both sophomores, examine how ankle muscles work in an activity for the "Career Lab" of BioLaunch, a program helping College of Biological Sciences students explore careers and prepare for them. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Take off your shoes and socks, the guest speaker asked 10 students in a recent class of the BioLaunch “Career Lab” at UC Davis.

“I was a little surprised,” laughed Madison Sainte-Agathe, who is majoring in medical and molecular microbiology.

Under the guidance of UC Davis Assistant Athletic Trainer Lisa Varnum, the students teamed up to examine how ankle muscles work, practiced wrapping simulated injuries and developed rehabilitation plans.

The brief exercise in physical therapy was part of the BioLaunch program to help undergraduates in the College of Biological Sciences explore career opportunities and develop job search and professional skills. With $1.75 million in support from the Koret Foundation of San Francisco, the program is in its second year of developing a four-year progression of courses, experiential learning and one-on-one advising.

The program is a collaboration of the Internship and Career Center, or ICC, and the college and part of the campus’s broader Aggie Launch initiative for career exploration and preparation.

BioLaunch builds on the college’s BioLaunch Mentor Collective — that pairs hundreds of incoming students with trained upper division students for mentoring — and the “Exploring Biological Sciences” course that familiarizes new students with the college, its research opportunities and potential career paths.    

“We know when students start exploring careers early they’re more likely to secure graduate school or career positions by the time they graduate,” said Leslie Peek, who oversees the ICC’s teaching initiatives and is director for the center’s health and biological sciences, graduate student and postdoctoral career services.

Expanding knowledge of careers

BioLaunch’s first-year course, “Career Pathways Seminar,” helps students expand their knowledge of the careers open to them. “I learned a lot about the range of fields in health care,” Sainte-Agathe said. “There are not just doctors and nurses and radiologists.”

From among 150 students in last year’s inaugural course, about 50, including Sainte-Agathe, continued into the second-year “Career Lab,” offered in three small sections this quarter.

Guest speakers — including faculty, staff, alumni and others — share their work related to the biological sciences and provide hands-on activities for students to explore the kinds of things they might do in the profession. Using a career competencies handbook, the students reflect on skills they’re developing in associated assignments and how they’ll be useful in a career.

Two female students face each other as they work on a project
BioLaunch students Karen Kee, left, and Diana Criley work on a rehabilitation plan for an injured ankle during an activity in the "Career Lab" course. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Victoria Volkova, who is majoring in biomedical engineering, was among the students who remarked on a presentation by David Coil, the project scientist who led efforts to implement the asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program on campus and for Healthy Davis Together. “It was interesting to hear how that was made possible on such a large scale in such a short period of time,” she said.

Last year, Volkova followed up with one of the speakers from the first-year course, got some contacts, arranged an informational interview and shadowed a graduate student in a research lab. Now she’s applying for an internship there.

Individual help

Carrie Ozeran is the program coordinator and lab instructor, and Moira Delgado is its career advisor and seminar instructor. In and outside of the classroom, they provide students with one-on-one help as they chart a career path, prepare resumes and cover letters, and apply for internships and part-time jobs.

Bryce Howard is considering changing his major from biochemistry and molecular biology to human development and, after he graduates, plans to pursue further education for a career in nursing. The BioLaunch staff have helped him explore internships in the medical field and tailor his resume and cover letters for applications.

“The program really does get you to get yourself out there and do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do,” he said. “The networking is a huge piece.”

In the spring, BioLaunch will bring students, speakers and campus partners together for a networking event.

How the program will develop

The program will continue to expand. About 300 students enrolled in the first-year course this winter, and the program has funding to serve up to 600 first-year students. Students can still register for the series’ two courses for spring quarter when registration reopens March 18 for schedule adjustment.

In the next academic year, the “Career Lab” will be offered in the fall, winter and spring quarters.

Also, the inaugural cohort of students will be in their third year of studies, and BioLaunch will incorporate an internship or volunteer position for them. Peek said the Koret grant will enable BioLaunch to offer stipends to eligible students who take an unpaid internship or volunteer position. A course will help students process what they’re learning through the experience, discuss workplace culture and more.

In 2023-24, a fall career seminar and individual assistance will focus on helping the students, then seniors, apply for graduate school or career positions.

Peek said she hopes BioLaunch can expand to serve the other three undergraduate colleges and enhance their career-related offerings.

For example, the College of Letters and Science offers “Careers and Identity in American Culture” to help students explore careers. In partnership with the ICC, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has Career Discovery Groups, and Aggie JumpStart extends the career groups and more to first-generation, low-income and underserved students. The College of Engineering’s Mentor Collective pairs incoming students with recent graduates of the college.

Julia Ann Easley tells stories and supports communications for student life; undergraduate, graduate and continuing education; international activities, and the UC Davis Library. She also helps the unit be prepared to meet its responsibilities for emergency communications.

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