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School of Medicine discoveries

June 20, 2015

A trio of Physiology alumni speak with current students about connections and collaborations

Clockwise from top: Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12; Robert Vick, PhD’86; and John Kennedy, PhD’84Clockwise from top: Clockwise from top: Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12; Robert Vick, PhD’86; and John Kennedy, PhD’84

Soon after Chair Diomedes Logothetis, Ph.D., arrived in 2008, he instituted an annual retreat for the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Now in its seventh year, it’s proved to be a great venue for current students to learn from alumni who’ve gone before them into the fields of research, academia and industry.

In June, three returning alumni shared lessons learned from their careers.

Both Robert Vick, PhD’86, and John Kennedy, PhD’84, arrived on the MCV Campus in the 1980s. They compared stories about what it was like in an era of time-consuming hands-on science.

“Before so many resources were available for purchase, you had to make them,” said Vick, an associate professor of biology at Elon University where he’s twice served as chair of his department.

Three decades of scientific progress mean that scientists can now buy materials like monoclonal antibodies, but Vick emphasized that the theme of steady change is the take-home message. “The technology you’ll use in 20 years doesn’t exist now.”

John Kennedy, PhD’84, agreed, encouraging the students to be adaptable and willing. For the majority of his career, Kennedy was a funded investigator building a research program in muscle development. More recently, the associate professor of physiology and biophysics turned his attention to teaching. He’s now director of physiology education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“You have to rely on the people around you,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to reach out. It’s those connections that make it interesting and lead to new directions. At each step of the way, if I hadn’t used the people and resources around me, it would have been much more difficult.”

Continuing the theme of collaboration and connections, Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12, described how – early in his career – he’s honing his networking skills as well as his laboratory techniques.

A post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology at Ohio State University, Bhattacharya arrived on the Columbus campus at the same time as his post-doc advisor. Because of it, he gained experience in setting up a lab from the ground floor. He’s now exploring whether he’d like a career in industry.

“Social media is a great tool, but you have to use it judiciously to brand yourself,” he said. “It’s one route for reaching out. I’ll ask for an informational interview about a job I might be interested in, and people are happy to help.”

Bhattacharya described how he is also pursuing a masters of business administration from Fisher College of Business to further his goal of getting his foot in the door of the biotech industry.

For students considering a teaching career at a liberal arts college like Elon in North Carolina, Vick shared his view, gained from the challenge of making his physiology class fresh for a new set of students – even for the 75th time.

“It’s a chance to pique their interest. That is why I love doing it. It’s their first exposure, and it will hopefully propel them on to a health professions or science career.”

A fan of teaching, Vick is also a visiting scholar with Duke University’s Preparing Future Faculty program, but he noted there’s no place like an undergrad campus for rubbing shoulders with a truly diverse set of faculty.

During a Q&A session with the students, Kennedy recalled what it had been like to be in the shoes of his audience.

“You have successes, failures and screw-ups. I came to grad school not very confident in my abilities. I almost quit because I thought I didn’t have the chops. But, slowly, I got past the first semester. It took the faculty’s support to get me through.

“There’s no one who doesn’t hit a roadblock. But when you do, look close to home. You have more resources than you realize in the faculty and students around you.”