In 2015, responding to students’ interest in a graduate program that focuses on skill sets relevant for non-academic careers, Dr. Jennifer Gommerman, the Associate Chair of Graduate Studies for the Department of Immunology, launched a new program now known as the M.Sc. in Applied Immunology. Unlike many traditional graduate programs, the M.Sc. in Applied Immunology program focuses on developing skills in research without a thesis requirement. The program is designed to provide flexibility in elective course selection, allowing students to explore topics of their own interest such as biotechnology, statistics, pharmacology and/or business. Another appealing feature of the program is its fixed two-year length. Additionally, the program offers a practical placement term during the final summer, allowing students to seek internships or placements in industry or other employment sectors. Overall, the technical and transferable skills that students gain from the Applied Immunology program give them the ability to use the program as a stepping-stone towards their future career.
Dr. Nana Lee, the Director of Graduate Professional Development (GPD) and Assistant Professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Immunology, kept detailed records of the program’s alumni since its launch in 2015. In line with Dr. Lee’s projection about the impact of this program, alumni have transitioned into various fields within biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry, professional education and academic research. Two alumni of the program, Oksana Okorokov and Flora Wong, are now employed in the biotechnology sector and were able to provide brief interviews on their journey through the Applied Immunology program and how it benefitted their career.
When asked about her journey, Okorokov spoke highly of the practical experiences she gained from the program, both in her host lab and during practical laboratory courses. Upon completing her research project, Okorokov secured an internship at Fluidigm and is now employed in their marketing department: “This role is an interesting intersection of science and business and keeps me close to the field of immunology while allowing me to develop skills transferable to other industries.” When asked about how the Applied Immunology M.Sc. prepared her for her career, Okorokov emphasized that she was able to learn specific technical skills, such as flow cytometry, that helped make her a competitive candidate for an internship with Fluidigm.
A more recent graduate, Flora Wong, shared her experiences as an advanced standing Applied Immunology student, which allowed her to complete her degree in just 16 months. Following the completion of her degree this past summer, Wong joined Ranomics, a Toronto-based biotechnology company, as a Research Technician. Wong credits Dr. Lee’s GPD course and the Applied Immunology practical placement term in helping her realize what opportunities were available as a M.Sc. graduate: “As I progressed through the program, I began to realize that there was so much more that I could do with a Master’s degree than I had originally thought. I found the one-on-one discussions that I had with Dr. Lee extremely helpful in exploring the career options in and out of academia that may interest me.”
Since its inception, the Applied Immunology program has undergone several changes to its curriculum. Dr. Korosh Kianizad, the Manager of the Applied Immunology M.Sc. program, explained that the students in the program are truly responsible for the advancements made: “The core pillar of the program is that it evolves to meet the needs of [current and future] students; it is not meant to be static.” Dr. Kianizad regularly asks students for their feedback during and after the completion of the program. Some of the changes previously made based on this feedback included increasing the program’s funding amount to make it tuition neutral and giving students the opportunity to present their research within the Student Seminar series in order to receive feedback from their peers and faculty members. In addition, the GPD course is now introduced much earlier in the program to give students ample time to develop skills in job searching and networking. The evolution of the Applied Immunology program has likely contributed to the increasing number of applicants each year, from fewer than 20 applicants in 2015 to approximately 70 applicants as of 2018.
Despite the successes of the Applied Immunology program, there is always room for improvement. Currently, the program coordinators are working on maximizing the flexibility of the program by consolidating two practical laboratory courses into one all-encompassing, single-semester, laboratory course that would give students a better balance between coursework and research. Moreover, the Department is looking to expand its professional networks with companies across the city, potentially increasing the variety of placement locations for incoming students.
The M.Sc. in Applied Immunology program offers a distinct set of skills and resources within a pre-defined timeline. Ultimately, as graduate education continues to change, the Department will continue to adapt to make sure students are getting the best possible education and are ready for life after graduate school.