To compete in the 21st-century workforce, engineering and science graduates need to be equipped with skills beyond those gleaned at the lab bench.
As crucial to future success as they may be, however, these so-called "soft" skills — such as interpersonal and public communication, organization, time management, and teamwork — are rarely found as part of a formal curriculum.
The Stevens Institute of Technology Center for Healthcare Innovation (CHI) aims to bridge this critical skills gap while also disseminating the latest in interdisciplinary biomedical technology and healthcare delivery research through its CHI Tissue Engineering Workshops.
Held approximately every six months, CHI workshops offer postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from participating Stevens laboratories the opportunity to hone their skills presenting their work to an audience of peers and colleagues working in biology, engineering, computer science, and related disciplines.
Each event is also chaired and organized by a student from the participating laboratories on a rotating basis, providing one select postdoctoral fellow or graduate student the chance to see and experience how such an event is conducted from the inside.
Although CHI also organizes larger, international symposia periodically, these semiannual local workshops are designed with student development forefront in mind.
Second-year chemical biology PhD student Sadaf Farsinejad chaired the most recent CHI Tissue Engineering Workshop, held on October 4. While opportunities for public presentation are a likelihood at some point in one's PhD experience, she says, having the opportunity to manage and contribute as an event organizer would have been unlikely otherwise during her postdoctoral studies if not for the CHI workshop.
Farsinejad actually came to Stevens with previous event organization experience, having served a few years ago as one of the organizers of the International Biotechnology Congress hosted by the University of Tehran in her native Iran while earning her Master's degree in Biotechnology.
But the CHI Workshop, she says, gave her a much more hands-on management experience. Over approximately two months, she managed a broad range of aspects for the event, including general planning, conducting formal communications with professors and students, setting and enforcing deadlines, upholding guidelines and protocols, coordinating assets — even designing the event flyer.
The overall goal was to make certain "the whole process goes smoothly," Farsinejad says. She also strove to support the presenters both before and during the event and to help ensure their presentations would go off without a hitch.
Farsinejad knows first-hand how important that kind of support and smooth operations are to the student presenters' success: she herself was a presenter at the CHI Workshop held last March, presenting findings on ovarian cancer dissemination and targeting the metastasis of ovarian cancer on behalf of the Iwanicki Lab (Department of Chemistry, Chemical Biology, and Biomedical Engineering; Supervisor: Assistant Professor Marcin Iwanicki).
While the spring workshop gave her the chance to improve her own individual public-speaking skills, Farsinejad stresses the collaborative teamwork that generated the presentation — reflecting even more soft skills-building development occurring behind the scenes.
"I actually said it in the beginning of the presentation, and showed a picture and names, that I'm talking on behalf of all my lab members," she says. "It was a pretty cool experience."
Both organizing and presenting at the CHI workshops gave Farsinejad the opportunity to get familiar and interact with the professors in her department and their research areas. In addition to the individual soft skills development underlying the workshops, each 20-minute presentation, she says, also offers to its audience the potential for cross-disciplinary education and solutions not as immediately available otherwise.
"The most important and the first purpose of the CHI [workshop] is that people get familiar with each other's research in these interdisciplinary areas related to human health," she says. "When professors and research groups get more familiar with each other's research, they can have more collaboration. They can do more innovations together."
Focused on challenges and breakthroughs in cell biology, tissue engineering, and biomaterials to provide patient-specific treatments, topics presented at the October event included cancer biology and nanotechnology. The event's presenters and presentations were:
- Jingyu Sun, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (Supervisor: Professor Hongjun Wang): "Biomimic-Gold Nanodendrities for Synergistic Photodynamic and NIR-II Window Photothermal Therapy"
- Daniel Centeno, Chemical Biology Department (Supervisor: Assistant Professor Marcin Iwanicki): "The Role of the Taurine Transporter in Ovarian Cancer"
- Dahlia Matouba, Chemical Biology Department (Supervisor: Assistant Professor Ansu Perekatt): "Metabolic Alterations in Relation to Colon Inflammation Upon Smad4 Loss in the Intestinal Epithelium"
- Kai Cao, Biomanufacturing & Biomodeling Lab, Mechanical Engineering Department (Supervisor: Assistant Professor Robert Chang): "Removal of Residual Charge in MEW Scaffold by Cooling the Collector"
- Chao Sui, Nano-Micro-Bio Lab, Chemical Engineering & Materials Science Department (Supervisor: Professor Woo Lee): "Microfluidic Culture Platform to Mimic Cancer Cell Trafficking through Bone Marrow Sinusoidal Niche"
- Aneela Anwar, Biomanufacturing & Biomodeling Lab, Mechanical Engineering Department (Supervisor: Associate Professor Xiaojun Yu): "Biodegradable Calcium Phosphate Based Nanocomposite Scaffolds for Cartilage and Bone Regeneration"
A pre-event pizza lunch and post-event happy hour at a local restaurant bookended the workshop. The latter in particular, says CHI Director and Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department Professor and Chair Peter Tolias, provides a venue for presenters and audience both to continue the conversation and network in a more laid-back setting.
"It's a custom that we have," Tolias says. "It's an opportunity for us to go out, relax, mingle with the students and the professors on a social basis, discuss the workshop. Students get better feedback from us about their presentations and how they can make them better. We're trying to give them constructive criticism in this workshop so they can hone their skills as presenters of scientific content."
Tolias and Farsinejad both describe the October workshop as a success, with the latter highlighting positive feedback received afterwards. Attendance was consistent with previous events at approximately 35 attendees, many of whom were students and staff from the laboratories of the participating investigators. School of Engineering and Science Dean Jean Zu and Associate Dean for Research Henry Du were also counted amongst the workshop's attendees.
Praising the event's presentations, Tolias also notes how the recent CHI Tissue Engineering Workshop was reflective and indicative of overall advancements made by the students, the university, and the industry as a whole.
"The progress that's been made through all of the labs presenting is very cutting-edge and competitive with research going on in virtually any university that I know of in this subject matter," he says. "If there's a take-home lesson, it's the overall high quality of the work, especially gauging and comparing it to where we were five or six years ago when we started, where the work was not as cutting-edge, we didn't have as much experience and know-how in the area, and the presentations by the students weren't as good. All those have really turned around."
As for her individual student perspective, Farsinejad credits her experiences with the CHI workshops for boosting both assurance in herself and in her abilities, both of which will come in handy throughout her career.
"[Being a presenter] helped me to be more confident in presenting my work in front of professors and graduate-level students," she says. "Also, in the organizing part, it helped me to be more confident and remember, and again learn, all the skills that you need to have for holding a seminar or symposium."