The University of Arizona is collaborating with Amgen, a global leader in biotechnology, to strengthen and diversify the nation’s STEM workforce.
Amgen’s academia-biotech fellowship program began in 2021 with master’s level students from Howard University. Amgen’s Karen Walker, Manager, R&D Strategy & Operations, and René Hubert, Director, Expression & Cell Engineering, initiated discussions with UArizona earlier this year to expand their fellowship program to doctoral students.
“The University of Arizona has strong academic programs and a culture of diversity and inclusion that aligns with Amgen’s commitment to our workforce,” says Hubert. “With these fellowship awards, we want to help their students imagine starting their careers at the research bench and advancing along any of the numerous career paths possible with Amgen.”
The first doctoral students to be awarded the fellowships are Danielle Johnson, pharmacology and toxicology; and Lauren Reyes, clinical translational science.
“I’m excited about collaborating with a premier pharmaceutical company,” says UArizona’s Brian Adair, Executive Director for Industry Engagement. “Amgen offers fantastic opportunities to our students during their PhD and beyond. Lauren and Danielle are already making a difference by pursuing advanced degrees in STEM. With this support from Amgen, they will further impact the biotechnology industry.”
Danielle Johnson’s reason for becoming a biomedical researcher is personal. “The summer going into my first year of high school, my grandfather’s health declined from lung cancer. My family was hands-on in the whole process of caring for him, so I experienced everything. From that point on, I wanted to be a biomedical researcher.”
While studying chemistry at Tennessee State University, Johnson participated in the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program, which exposes underrepresented students to research and funds hands-on research projects. Johnson worked with Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University, focusing on diseases disproportionately impacting minority communities.
Johnson chose the University of Arizona for her doctoral work to benefit from the school’s biological and biomedical sciences umbrella program. “Most schools ask what you want to do right when you start your graduate education,” says Johnson. “I didn’t know what I wanted because I hadn’t been exposed to the realm of what is possible.” The program allowed her to take core classes while doing lab rotations in both cancer biology and pharmacology & toxicology.
Working in Dr. John Jewett’s lab, Johnson develops chemical tools to advance the study of biological complexities. Her dissertation focuses on using functionalized triazabutadiene (TBD) chemical probes to target the mitochondria proteome. “With some cancers and neurodegenerative diseases, mitochondria become dysfunctional,” she says. “I’m trying to answer the question, “When mitochondria, the energy hubs in our cells, aren’t working properly, what implications does that have?”
Biology was Lauren Reyes’s favorite class in high school. As an undergraduate studying biological science, she was drawn to genetics and biomedical engineering. But she wasn’t sure how those fields would help her contribute to society. “Feeling I can answer the ‘So what?’ question is essential to me,” says Reyes.
When Reyes visited UArizona’s medical campus in Phoenix, her vision for her career came into focus. “When I found the clinical translational science program,” she says, “it was a fit for my asking "So what?" It would allow me to study traditional molecular biology and apply it to human health solutions.”
Reyes’s particular interest is cancer biology and drug discovery. Her dissertation targets melanoma. “In Arizona, melanoma is prevalent, so it’s meaningful to work toward something that may help those in my community.”
Reyes was grateful to find her mentor, Tim Marlowe, Ph.D., director of an Arizona drug discovery lab at the College of Medicine – Phoenix. “He shares my passion and drive to apply molecular biology to the bigger picture.
“We’re a great fit.” Dr. Marlowe agrees. “Lauren is committed to make a difference in the world. I support her research and these next steps to fulfill that calling.”
Dr. Marlowe’s lab has identified a protein upregulated in about 80 percent of all solid tumors. Current therapeutic strategies show inconsistent efficacy in the clinic, so the lab is trying to target a different protein function. “I have to limit what I say,” Reyes qualifies, “but my research centers on assessing the efficacy of our therapeutics versus what’s currently available in the clinic to treat melanoma.”
When Johnson was invited to apply for the Amgen fellowship, she knew the opportunity could benefit her. “My discipline is like a fast-growing tree with many branches. And that’s just in academia, where what we do can be limited by resources. We don’t even know all the cutting-edge research going on in industry. We need to see that side of our field as well.”
Diversity and inclusion are two of Johnson’s core values, and the fact that Amgen offers a fellowship to students from underrepresented communities suggested to her the company shares those ideals. She also liked the representation she found on Amgen’s website and that Forbes Magazine names the company as one of the nation’s best workplaces for women.
Johnson’s six months at Amgen’s campus in Thousand Oaks will lead into her PhD homestretch. When she returns to Tucson, she will finish her dissertation on the Arizona campus with her Amgen principal investigator (PI) and mentor, Peter Hodder, PhD, executive director of Discovery Research, joining her committee.
Johnson already admires her industry mentor. “Dr. Hodder has been welcoming since day one. In our first meeting, before we even got into the science, I appreciated that he wanted to know about me, my background, and what I was looking for from him and Amgen. He wanted to make sure his mentoring style would fit with how I learn.”
Dr. Hodder says, “Danielle and I share a commitment to diversifying the STEM workforce. Working together at this early stage of her career is a step toward ensuring a strong and relevant pharmaceutical industry.”
Lauren Reyes learned about the Amgen fellowship through the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) program funding her doctoral studies. The program helped her, a first-generation college student, learn to network, select a PI, and build a resume. The program also organized social events where she met like-minded friends. “It was an awesome program that made a PhD possible for me.”
When Reyes was awarded the Amgen fellowship, she was thrilled. “Amgen is a leader in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals and very much a patient-first company, so it aligns with my passions perfectly.”
While Johnson settles into discovery research, Lauren Reyes will be working elsewhere on Amgen’s expansive Thousand Oaks campus with the induced proximity platform, under the mentorship of Ryan Potts, PhD, Executive Director and Head, Induced Proximity Platform
Reyes’s project will involve proteolysis-targeting chimeras, or PROTACs. “It’s a new drug therapy technology that hijacks your cells’ natural way of degrading proteins. Instead of giving a patient an inhibitor to stop specific proteins from interacting, they’re degrading the protein that they think is causing the issue.” She adds that the technology goes way beyond degradation. “You can induce interactions you want to happen between proteins or molecules or prevent them from happening. It’s a whole new class of therapeutics.”
Reyes’s limited experience with PROTACS makes her enthusiastic about learning more. “I’ve worked a bit with PROTACS in the past, comparing them with the inhibitors made in Dr. Marlowe’s lab. It’s a research interest of mine in drug discovery.”
“Lauren’s time at Amgen will supplement her PhD dissertation research at the University of Arizona,” Potts says, “ultimately, the experience she derives from discovery research in industry will make her a better scientist and foster her long-term career development down the road.”
Dr. Marlowe agrees. “The benefits of the Amgen Fellowship outweigh any downsides to taking six months away from campus. I’m confident Lauren will return to campus with unique experiences and perspectives that will make her PhD work that much more relevant.”
Danielle Johnson has clear goals for her six months in Thousand Oaks. “I hope my time at Amgen will allow me to see what a strong finish looks like and gain confidence in my skillsets. I want to know I’ll be relevant when I’m done with grad school and will have something to offer. I see it as a time portal to experience where I can go if I continue to be steadfast in completing my program.”
Johnson hopes paid internships become accessible to more students. “The opportunity to work with a company and see the pace of science there can train the student for what’s next.”
Johnson names another benefit of the internship: its potential to inspire students just when they need that spark to finish their dissertation. “At some point, every grad student wonders if all their hard work will be worth it, if it will be applicable in the job market. Internships could help alleviate this fear.”
Johnson emphasizes that the benefits of paid internships aren’t one-sided; they help companies recruit a qualified, motivated, diverse, and clear-eyed young workforce. “Industry needs to be able to put faces and connections to resumes. My CV explains what I’ve done scientifically, but it doesn’t show how my mind thinks or if I will be the fit for the team that you’re looking for. An internship does that.”
Because she is earlier in her PhD journey, Lauren Reyes’s goals take a different angle. “All I’ve been working toward for the past seven years is finally coming to fruition. I’m starting my third year in the PhD program, so I still have options if I find out industry isn’t for me. I really doubt that will happen, but if it does, it’s early enough to steer my career in a new direction.”
Reyes also hopes she can squeeze a project into the six months she’s been allotted at Amgen’s laboratories. “I hope I can get far enough along to have a story to tell, to be able to say, ‘I’ve done this and found these results.’” She also hopes she can tie some of her work into her dissertation, “whether that’s a chapter, data I can use, or even just learning new techniques that aren’t available to me in an academic setting.”
The Personal Challenges
Danielle Johnson confesses she’s both excited and nervous to move to Thousand Oaks. “I’ve never lived in California, but I moved from Tennessee to Arizona, so I know what it’s like to be in a new place.” While her mother is proud and excited for her, “she asks me why I had to find a company even further away than Tucson!”
Looking to her time with Amgen, Lauren Reyes admits she is intimidated by her relative youth and lack of experience. “The whole point of grad school training is to become an independent researcher. I’m on my way to that, but I still rely on guidance from my mentor and other senior scientists in the lab. Working in an industry lab early in my training feels sink or swim. I see the challenge, but I’m ready to face it.”
Reyes’s family will also be there to support her. “Even though they never imagined something like this would be part of my education, they’re over the moon. We’re close-knit, so my being so far away will be an adjustment. My dad is packing up the U-Haul, and my mom is already telling me when she’ll visit!”
An Eye to the Future
Professor of molecular and cellular biology, Frans Tax, PhD, is coordinating the Amgen fellowships as part of his work with the NIH Initiative for Maximizing Student Development. He considers the Amgen fellowship a model for the future. “The university’s role is changing. Graduate students want to know what’s next and how their degree will apply practically, and many look outside academia. To be successful, they need mentoring and career networking as part of their education.”
Tax says it is important for academic institutions with limited resources to collaborate with industry in offering paid internships, especially for students like Johnson and Reyes, who overcome significant hurdles to get an advanced degree. “The kind of internship Amgen is giving is the best kind of collaboration we could imagine. In the future, I hope it will be five to ten students per year instead of two. I also hope more companies will see the mutual benefit of collaborating with us.”