Kaitlyn Strumski was thoughtful in her selection of college, taking, as anyone who knows her might expect, a researcher’s approach. She chose ACPHS based on her subject interests, as well as the faculty-to-student ratio and the value she expected to receive on her investment.
But she could not foresee everything that would happen during her college years. A quite-unexpected pandemic cast its shadow, of course. And the College’s decision to open the Stack Family Center for Biopharmaceutical Education and Training (CBET) changed her career path.
The quick-talking, high-energy graduate, who has accepted a job as a senior scientist in manufacturing at Eli Lilly and Co., says things have worked out better than she’d hoped.
“My new job actually fits what I want more than what I came here thinking I would like,” Strumski said with palpable enthusiasm, smiling broadly and leaning forward in her seat to emphasize her points. “I wanted to impact society by helping people with medication. This is the most direct way you can do it – by literally, physically, making the medicine.”
The key to getting there, she said, was finding a balance between sticking to her own interests and venturing into territory recommended by others who saw her potential.
“Don’t say no to opportunities” is the lesson that Strumski said she learned at ACPHS. “If you think the opportunity could benefit you in any way, take that opportunity.”
Strumski is getting her master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences. What first spurred her interest was a doctor’s thorough explanation of a proton pump inhibitor she had been prescribed. She was nervous about taking it until the doctor explained how it worked – its mechanism of action. Strumski, who loved chemistry, was fascinated by the pill’s ability to bind with targeted receptors to achieve its desired effect.
“I was like, that’s so cool,” Strumski said. “His explanation made me want to go into pharmacy.”
She was certain, however, that she did not want to be a pharmacist per se – she’d had experience in customer service and no interest in interacting with patients. A desire to work around other curious people led her to pharmaceutical sciences. She liked the small class sizes at ACPHS, as well as the value of the five-year master’s degree option.
ACPHS was a good fit from the time she started, she said. She was here just a year when CBET launched in Fall 2019; soon afterward, her academic advisor, Associate Professor Richard Dearborn, began suggesting she take classes there. Dr. Dearborn said he was impressed with Strumski’s leadership, fearlessness, tenacity and “rock-star academic potential.”
Strumski pushed back on his suggestions initially – the CBET classes sounded to her more like biology, which she didn’t like so much; chemistry was her thing. But with a little urging, Strumski agreed. She was one of a handful of students in the first course CBET offered, in Fall 2020, on microbial fermentation.
She found the engineering aspects so challenging that the class made her cry at least once, she said. Until it made her smile.
“That class set my love for manufacturing, because I never really thought about the fact that you could take a living organism like E. coli and generate a drug that people could consume – insulin,” Strumski said. “To get to the point where I knew enough to have operated a bioreactor and recover a product from it – that was insanely amazing.”
Her confidence soared, and she was ready to pursue the other thing Dr. Dearborn had suggested – an internship at Lilly. She secured one working in insulin fermentation for their Indianapolis facility, working remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions. Her CBET class had prepared her well, she said.
“I knew exactly how we purify drugs because of the downstream (bioprocessing) course I took. I knew the upstream, I knew the downstream, and I knew how insulin worked and why we give it to people because of my pharm sci degree,” Strumski said. “If it weren’t for CBET, I would have only known, what is insulin and why do we give it?”
Once at Lilly, the company’s own talent scouts noticed the quality of Strumski’s work. And she had the opportunity to see that she in turn liked the company – its values, the benefits it provided, the way it treated employees. She was offered a job a full year before graduating.
Being one of CBET’s first students has also allowed her to make an impact on coursework, she said. After her experience as an intern, she suggested that CBET courses include modules on data integrity, and that suggestion has been implemented.
“Kaitlyn is what I would consider to be a ‘legacy student,’ meaning that her influence on our pharmaceutical sciences programs will persist long after her graduation,” said Dr. Dearborn, who chairs the pharmaceutical sciences department. “Kaitlyn has pioneered a new pathway for BSPS and MSPS students, showing how a career in industry aligns perfectly with our academic programming.”
As for her path after graduation on May 13, Strumski continues on an adventurous and fast-paced schedule. She moves to New Jersey on May 14, marries ACPHS alum Nicholas Rehberg ’20 in her hometown of Wyoming, Pa., on May 27, and starts her new job at Lilly’s manufacturing site in Branchburg, N.J., in June.
Surely, it should be enough to stoke her relentless enthusiasm for a while – or at least until her curiosity leads her down another road.