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Bioengineering Co-op: Take the Leap!

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and as a Pitt alum, I spent the first two decades of my life in and around the Steel City. So, when I had the opportunity to move out of the area to co-op, I jumped on it. In hindsight, my decision was one of the best I made while studying at the University of Pittsburgh.

As a bioengineer, especially in 2015, Pittsburgh was on the cusp of entering the life science biotechnology space. While the companies within the city were great, they weren’t numerous and neither were co-op opportunities. I’ve always wanted to travel, and after junior year (especially after first semester junior year) I was ready for a change.

I chose to co-op with GlaxoSmithKline in Rockville, Maryland, less than 20 miles north of Washington D.C. I moved down to Rockville three weeks after I accepted GSK’s offer, knowing no one and having never before lived by myself. I was both excited and scared for the journey ahead.

For 12 months, I worked in the BioPharmaceutical Technology Department, bridging the gap between bench-top large-molecule and antibody pharmaceutical research and process development and large-scale manufacturing. I went into the year knowing NOTHING about product lifecycle management, project management, and honestly, biologics or pharmaceuticals. I left having gained a vast amount of technical knowledge, but even more so about myself.

I moved to D.C. on a whim, without any family or close friends nearby. I said, “Eh, why not?” Little did I know, it would be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. With that being said, it was the most rewarding experience I’ve had.

Moving away for co-op made me self-sufficient – I was wholly dependent on myself for food, well-being, rent, bills, etc. I learned how to budget money and how to save. I spent weekends alone, and I spent weekends with friends, new and old. Being alone made me take my life and happiness into my own hands. I was directly responsible for everything I did or chose not to do. On weekends, I explored DC, popping in and out of museums and taking in the new city. I tried new foods, looked at art for hours, and found my way around an unfamiliar place to the point where it felt like it was my city.

This solo exploration translated into my work at GSK. I was confident and self-assured. Three years at Pitt made me technically capable of handling whatever was thrown at me, and I learned to always carry myself in a professional manner (even when I wanted to hide in a corner) and speak with conviction.

You’re probably reading this thinking, “While it’s nice to read about someone’s experiences, will I have the same outcome? Will I love it or hate it?” Well, you never know until you try, and honestly, the bioengineering program has prepared you for more than your next steps after graduation.

I recently went back to Pitt to speak at the BMES Alumni panel, and received numerous questions about co-op and industry, including the question, “I’m thinking about doing a co-op in a different city. Did you like your experience? Would you do it again?”

My answer: In a heartbeat. Go explore. You’re young and capable of more than you realize. And at the end of it all, Cathy will be there waiting for you to come back. And she will be even more beautiful than when you left her.

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