Graduate School Program Opens New Opportunities for International Students

Nithesh Chandrasekharan
Nithesh Chandrasekharan.

Nithesh Chandrasekharan is an international student from Sri Lanka and India with a passion for novel experiences. A first-generation college student who thrives in collaborative work environments, Chandrasekharan came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to learn, build skills, and identify future career paths while pursuing a Ph.D. through the Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB).

Working in research labs as an undergraduate at James Madison University and now as a graduate student in Scott Coyle’s lab gave Chandrasekharan a taste of what a career in academia would entail. He wished to seek opportunities in industry, too, so that he could clarify his career goals and use his time in graduate school to gain experiences that would ready him for life after graduation.

As an international student, Chandrasekharan’s options for industry-based experiences were limited. International students’ visas often prohibit off-campus paid work — including paid internships. This meant that opportunities such as the Biotechnology Training Program (BTP), which requires that trainees complete a paid internship, were unavailable to him.

Fortunately for Chandrasekharan, an internship pilot program at UW–Madison has opened the door for international students to get a feel for life in the biotech industry. UW’s Graduate School Industry Internship Program, which grew from the opportunities available through BTP, will soon enter its third year. Participation is available to students with dissertator status and aims to enhance doctoral students’ competitiveness for a variety of careers beyond academia.

“The internship program provides a valuable experiential learning opportunity for our graduate students that will both enhance their research skillset as well as prepare them for success in their future scientific careers,” explains William Karpus, dean of the Graduate School.

The program’s internship requirements are flexible and can meet the parameters of international students’ visas. With a wide range of internship options, students like Chandrasekharan can build skills and relationships in any life science field.

“The opportunities are rather limited for international students,” says Chandrasekharan. “I’m so thankful to [BTP director] Brian Fox for setting a precedent with BTP and to the Graduate School for starting this pilot program. It’s allowed me to see how my scientific knowledge can be applied and expanded in a different context.”

Chandrasekharan applied and was accepted as a graduate school intern at Aldevron, a biotechnology company in Madison, WI. The internship’s emphasis on protein purification fit well with his skills and interests. “In the Coyle Lab, we can bioengineer proteins and grow them in different types of cells. We break the cells apart and purify what’s left until we isolate the protein we want to study. We can then use that protein in different experiments to gain better understanding about the biological processes that protein is involved in,” explains Chandrasekharan. “Companies like Aldevron can use these same techniques to produce engineered proteins for clients in biomedical research and other fields.”

Aldevron’s internship program has strong support from Tom Foti, the vice president and general manager of the company’s Protein Business Unit. Foti, who had his own transformative internship during his undergraduate years at North Dakota State University, sees value in biotech internships beyond building research skills. “I always dreamed that when Aldevron expanded we’d be able to have interns here,” says Foti. “Our interns don’t just participate in the science, they learn how a high performing workplace culture operates from the inside and how to be part of a team. I think that’s very important for young scientists trying to decide if industry is for them.”

Aldevron's 2023 interns
Nithesh Chandrasekharan (standing, far right) was part of Aldevron’s 2023 cohort of graduate student interns.

Aldevron’s internship is rigorous and competitive. Their selection process mirrors that used to select their employees: scientific acumen is just as important as curiosity and critical thinking skills. For the interns who are selected, Foti and his team are committed to training the next generation of industry scientists. Chandrasekharan and the three other interns in his cohort participated in the training, problem solving, and decision making that comes with industry-based applied science.

This approach was just what Chandrasekharan was looking for. “One of the biggest reasons I wanted to do an industry internship was that I wanted to see how bench science connects to the business and managerial side of biotech,” recalls Chandrasekharan. “I wanted to see if I’m a good fit for that part of the work. They showed me how I can translate my Ph.D. skills into managing projects, working as a team to solve problems, and communicating with stakeholders about the science. I learned how to think about optimizing technical workflows while working toward clients’ goals. These are all things that build off my Ph.D. work but required me to recontextualize my skills and knowledge.”

Chandrasekharan left his internship ready to complete his doctoral research and pursue a career in the biotech industry. He hopes to be just one of many international students able to gain clarity through the Graduate School Industry Internship Program. “There’s nothing like firsthand experience,” says Chandrasekharan. “My hope is that this program is successful and becomes a long-term option for international students who want to apply academic training in a novel setting.”

Written by Renata Solan.