UA Students Take Aim on Top Careers in STEM

Sept. 9, 2015

Experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM fields — are becoming increasingly valuable in today's workforce, bringing a range of skills needed to drive innovation in different disciplines.

According to a Kelly Services report based on government data, the top five STEM careers, based on projected growth through 2020, are: biomedical engineering, medical science (excluding epidemiology), software development, biochemistry/biophysics and database administration.

The University of Arizona is at the forefront of educating the next generation of STEM leaders, and we spoke with UA undergraduate students who represent each of the five fields about their research and work experiences:

  • Aanika Balaji is a microbiology major who plans to work in biochemistry.
  • Adele Koutia, majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science, is on track to become a medical scientist.
  • Jordan Sandler, in the UA's School of Information, is on track to work in database administration.
  • Corina MacIsaac is majoring in biomedical engineering and physiology.
  • Travis Sawyer, an optical sciences major, represents the field of software development.

From corporate offices to the labs of Nobel laureates, these five students are the future of STEM.

"I want to encourage students to join research to understand more about their fields. This isn't restricted just to science majors. Being able to devote time to a topic you love is fulfilling and shows you how you can make a career of your major," Aanika Balaji says.

Q: What led you to choose your field of study?

Balaji: My family is originally from New Zealand, but we moved from Illinois to Missouri before settling in the Phoenix valley. With all of these moves, I changed schools very frequently. I think I attended nine schools before graduating. While switching schools, I initially struggled with my classes. However, I noticed that math and science courses were generally the same, so I really liked those. In ninth grade, I took biology for the first time and completely fell in love.

Koutia: I originally wanted to be a physician, and I knew that if I wanted to go to medical school it would be good to get involved in research. I actually discovered my love for the brain and neuroscience after I started working in Carol Barnes' lab, so I definitely can thank Dr. Barnes and the UA's emphasis on undergraduate research for finding my passion.

Sandler: Originally I thought I wanted to go into extensive coding, but I decided that it wasn't the field for me. I didn't want to leave the computer realm, so I decided that database management and construction was a good fit. The job opportunities were endless, and I always had the thought that everything is stored in a database and somebody has to manage it. A machine can only do so much when it comes to validating processes.

Corina MacIsaac, a major in biomedical engineering and physiology, says: "There are several events that influenced my decision to pursue an engineering degree. I have always enjoyed challenging myself by taking classes that push me to work my hardest. By doing this, I discovered how much I enjoy learning new things and knowing the reasons behind why things happen."

Sawyer: When I was growing up, my dad worked in astronomy and helped build the large telescopes on Kitt Peak. Because of this, I developed a strong interest in physics, and I knew I wanted to pursue an engineering degree in college. Optics seemed to be the natural choice. I didn’t become interested in software development until much later, when I started doing research with a professor in materials sciences. I was fascinated by the ability to write programs and manipulate computers to do what you wanted. It was challenging and aligned well with my logical way of thinking.

Q: What most excites you about your field?

Balaji: I think learning more about the complex relationship between humans and microorganisms is fascinating. Recently, developments in research have highlighted the importance of the microbiome for our health. Many diseases are linked to an imbalance of the species of bacteria that live within our bodies. Understanding this connection can reveal more about infections and how to combat them.

Sawyer: I'm really excited to see what kind of technology is going to be emerging in the field of optical computing and data storage. In traditional computing, we are forced to store more data on smaller and smaller chips, but we can only go so far because we are limited by the size of atoms and molecules. Research is being done into three-dimensional data storage using methods like holography. This would allow us to exponentially increase our data storage capacity by overcoming the two-dimensional limitation of disks and other modern storage media. Furthermore, there continues to be a push to increase processing speed and bandwidth. This is where optical computing, or performing digital computations using photons, comes in.

Sandler: What excites me most about the field is the opportunities to grow. Databases only get larger, and it poses a challenge to me to keep data organized and accessible at all times. To me, completing a challenge and setting more goals is what excites me about my field.

Adele Koutia (center) plans to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience and eventually serve as a researcher.

Koutia: Neuroscience is such a thrilling field to be a part of. There is so much that we do not know about the brain and its connection with the rest of the body. To me, the most fascinating focus in this field is the neural basis for behavior, learning and memory. Even though I have a fundamental understanding of how neurons can allow you to remember something, it still continually amazes me how complex and incredible the brain can be.

MacIsaac: To me, the most exciting aspect about the field of biomedical engineering is the potential to do what has never been done. Biomedical engineers are working to create things which have never before existed or were even comprehensible. I have always been the type of person who cares for others and looks for ways to help people. Not everyone gets the same chances in life, and surely not everyone gets the incredible opportunities I have been given. Therefore, I love the idea of being able to use my knowledge and skills to contribute to the community. Biomedical engineering provides me with the chance to do just that, by inventing and improving medicine and technology.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your research experiences?

Balaji: I was fortunate to gain a spot in the breast cancer research lab of Joyce Schroeder after I took her "Biology of Cancer" class my freshman year. Although I started out washing dishes and making solutions, I quickly progressed to having my own projects. The focus of my work relates to the breast cancer therapy designed in our lab, PMIP (Protein Transduction Domain 4, MUC1 inhibitory peptide). PMIP works by blocking the interaction between the oncogene Mucin 1 (MUC1) and its binding partners. In cancer, this interaction can drive cells to form tumors and metastasize to other parts of the body. I wanted to learn if PMIP could be used in other forms of cancer.

Koutia: I worked for two years in Carol Barnes' lab studying the effect of age on spatial memory. Last fall, I was informed that I was going to go work with Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser in Trondheim, Norway. A couple months later, it was announced that they were awarded the Nobel Prize, along with John O'Keefe. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with two Nobel laureates on a project that is directly related to what I am studying in the Barnes lab. The facilities were incredible and I learned some valuable techniques that I can bring back to the UA and use in the future. It was reassuring to spend time with the Mosers and realize that they were average people who just worked very hard, were dedicated to their science and loved what they did. 

Jordan Sandler, a student in the UA's iSchool, recently worked on the data migration team for Aetna Insurance, where he assisted in the migration of millions of accounts, claims and providers: "I had great teachers to help me learn the code, and I learned so much in such a short time."

MacIsaac: I began researching in the Soft Tissue Biomechanics Laboratory at the UA in 2014. I spent the entire summer working full time on the Tissue Engineered Vascular Graft project, and then continued part time through the academic year. This project involves the fabrication of nonsynthetic constructs designed to be used as coronary artery bypass grafts. This past summer, I participated in the program called Biomedical Research Abroad: Vistas Open, or BRAVO!, which funds student research projects in foreign countries. I completed my project at the Fundación Favaloro university hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The project consisted of learning how to perform microsurgery to test the constructs in a living model.

Sawyer: The research that I've done is mostly designing image-processing algorithms, which apply machine learning to attempt to solve a specific problem. For example, I work with a lot of images of paintings, and some of the work that I've done is into things like object recognition with artwork, which is more difficult than with photographs since there can be a high degree of style involved. I've also done some analysis on these artworks using image processing.

Q: What are your goals after graduation?

Balaji: I hope to attend medical school and work as a doctor in women's health. I had started college knowing that I liked science a lot and thought that a career in research was right for me. However, when I started working in lab, I realized that I felt like something was missing. I wanted to see the effects of our work. I shadowed an oncologist and saw how she had a career in clinical research but spent a majority of her time with patients, guiding them through treatment. I looked for opportunities to learn about medicine through volunteering and shadowing. Over the course of a few years, I realized I liked helping underserved populations, especially women. I hope to work in academic medicine, continue researching and volunteer in free clinics.

Sandler: My goal after graduation is to continue with the team that I have been working with. I was blessed to be placed with awesome coworkers and want to continue my employment with Aetna. This was a great experience, and it was tough cleaning out my cubicle.

Q: How is studying at the UA helping to prepare you? 

Koutia: I learned a lot while I was doing research abroad, but what was really exciting to me was learning how much the UA has prepared me. I was the youngest researcher in the Moser lab, and I felt like I could keep up with what they discussed and practiced. All of the scientists I met in Norway were surprised to hear that I was only an undergraduate, and I have the UA and the NSCS department to thank for this. I am confident that I will be prepared to achieve my career goals because of my experiences at the UA.

Sawyer: There has been a definite duality to my education — my formal training in optics and self-motivated experiences in software development. This has really broadened my ability to think critically and solve problems in different ways. No matter what field you're in, it's really important that you seek out new and unfamiliar experiences.

Travis Sawyer, an optical sciences major, intends to pursue a doctoral degree in optics or a related field, with plans to continue learning about software development: "It's becoming increasingly common for someone to have a good idea but be unable to implement it because they don't have the knowledge of software development. Being able to harness the capabilities of computing is very useful."

Sandler: The UA poses challenges to its students and focuses on allowing students to take the major and make it their own. I have always had the opportunity to take my studies and make my own decisions on how I want to implement my work in the business world. The foundation is laid for me, and I can choose to do what I want for my future.

MacIsaac: After graduation, my goal is to attend an M.D.-Ph.D. program where I can specialize in cardiology and obtain a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. Then, as a career, I hope to split my time between being a practicing cardiologist and a tissue engineering researcher. Not only do I want to help patients get the best current treatment available, I also want to be on the innovative research side and help create new treatments. Additionally, I have a newfound interest in surgery after my research project in Argentina this summer.

Sawyer: The UA is a gem. The faculty are so fantastic. They're willing to help and support you in all aspects of your education. They've been a huge inspiration and made me want to pursue a career in teaching and academics. The UA has an incredible number of research opportunities and gives students the chance to pursue what really interests them — they're only limited by their imagination.

MacIsaac: I never grew up thinking that I would be a doctor. However, now I want to be. All I knew when I graduated high school was that biomedical engineering was extremely fascinating. The Department of Biomedical Engineering helped open my mind to all the different studies and advances in technology occurring in the field of biomedical engineering. Additionally, with the help of the UA advisers, I have been able to learn about my options after graduation. The UA has provided me with the incredible opportunity to get involved in research and to experience my field of study firsthand. I am so thankful to go to the UA, where I have been able to take advantage of so many experiences to prepare me for my future.