A Discussion with Arianna Skirzynska, a recent University of Waterloo nanotechnology engineering graduate and incoming masters student at the University of Toronto!
Arianna is from Ottawa, Ontario, and is currently pursuing a Masters in Chemical Engineering under Dr. Molly Shoichet at the University of Toronto. She plans to work as an R&D manager in the technology field after graduation. She is also one of the minds behind the Hi-p Cells Bioreactor project, which won 2nd place in BioTEC 2019’s pitch competition. Arianna shared many insights about her undergraduate experience and how best to leverage having a multidisciplinary background as a student in this interview, brought to you by BioTEC outreach leads Jaya Gupta and Molly Lu.
BioTEC: Nanotechnology engineering is a very unique field of study. What initially motivated you to enroll in this program?
Arianna: My original plan was to enroll in a science/biology program, but when I first heard about the nanotech program, I realized I found the perfect mixture of science and engineering. The program allows you to explore many different fields like electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and biochemistry while prioritizing cutting edge scientific discovery, mainly because the field is so new relative to other disciplines.
BioTEC: Would you say you found what you were looking for in your program? Is it what you thought it would be?
Arianna: Yes, it was. The program was originally designed as somewhat of a preparatory research degree for undergraduates and I would say I definitely got that experience. The co-op aspect was great because not only did I work in research, I was also employed in a few industry co-ops that made me a more well-rounded student, prepared for a wide variety of careers I may want to pursue down the road.
BioTEC: What did you enjoy the most about your undergraduate studies?
Arianna: Throughout the program, I learned a lot about a lot of different engineering disciplines because it is a very multidisciplinary field - it looks at the nanoscale elements in a wide range of fields. This was not something I was expecting straight out of high school. It helped me discover what I really enjoy doing and lets me start a conversation about pretty much anything technical, whether it be from a classroom topic or a shared experience in the industry. The program’s unique name is in itself a great conversation starter because it stands out.
BioTEC: Why did you decide to complete a master’s in Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto?
Arianna: The specific project I am working on allows me to continue exploring multiple different fields within engineering. I’m not limited to just chemical engineering, but I also need aspects from biomedical and materials engineering to complete my thesis. The University of Toronto itself opens the door to a lot of different collaborations, particularly with the nearby hospitals, and I also get to explore a new city and student life.
BioTEC: You participated in BioTEC’s Fourth Year Design Project Pitch Competition last year. Could you tell us more about your Hi-p Cells FYDP Project?
Arianna: Hi-p Cells (pronounced ‘Hi - rho’) is a bioreactor for high-density stem cell culture (hence the name ‘Hi-rho’ which means ‘high density’). Our goal was to fill the needs of researchers in tissue engineering/regenerative medicine to grow high volumes of pluripotent and mesenchymal stem cells. There are currently thousands of clinical trials in the field of regenerative medicine and right now, the bioreactors that these researchers have not very clinically relevant. They take a long time to expand the cells and require very costly growth factors to maintain cell stemness.
My team’s supervisor for this project was Dr. Evelyn Yim at the University of Waterloo. Her lab was developing a nano topography which influenced the mechanobiology of the stem cells to prevent differentiation and increase cell expansion/growth. We wanted to take this technology and apply it to an industry-scale bioreactor so that it could be used easily by people who need large numbers of stem cells, be it for medical purposes or further research.
BioTEC: What led you to solve this specific problem of growing STEM cells for your project?
Arianna: We were approached by Dr. Yim after one of our classes, who brought up this problem to us. My team and I realized the large impact a solution to the problem could make and started to tackle it. It was an interesting problem to think about since we are exposed to consumer markets every day, but now we had to consider more of the business market as our largest customer would be biotech firms, hospitals, and universities.
BioTEC: In what ways did competing in BioTEC 2019’s pitch competition help with your project?
Arianna: The competition taught us how to describe the project to people with a non-technical background. The need for a massive amount of stem cells, and why it is so difficult, is not apparent unless you personally work on a related project. Preparing for our pitches helped us develop the story in our minds about why everyone should care about our project and be confident that my team is well suited to solve the problem.
Overall, it made us a lot more passionate about the project, grew our confidence, and led us to work even harder with a renewed motivation.
BioTEC: In what ways did the skills you learned through past co-ops apply to this project?
Arianna: Two of my six previous co-ops were in product management, which helped me take the lead and keep our project running smoothly on a strict project timeline. This was invaluable because capstone projects have no set schedule to work on your project, and it is entirely up to the team to plan lab space and experiments, manage your team’s inventory, and analyze the data afterward. Do not worry if you have a few non-nano related co-ops, because you will always learn a new skill that can be applied to whatever you want.
In my more nano-related co-ops, I developed and ran fluid dynamics simulations to inform my design of a microfluidics system. With the technical know-how of using the software, I was able to apply similar physics to determine the flow profile of our preliminary bioreactor designs and how our cells would interact in a dynamic cell culture environment. This enabled us to make decisions on our direction prior to using valuable lab resources.
BioTEC: What were your past co-op jobs and what factors enabled you to find relevant research and product management positions at places such as Cisco Meraki and the Wyss Institute?
Arianna: My first co-op was as a web app developer at Wind River Systems. I had no prior coding skills, so I went through a massive learning curve and gained a lot of new experiences. I also worked on a lot of the usability of the products. It turns out that it was a great asset, to begin with no experience, as I could accurately describe the onboarding experience for new users to their product and suggest changes. I realized I worked well as a bridge between customers and the technical team. As a result, I became a product manager for an electronic data capture company in Amsterdam called Castor EDC. I then decided it was time to try out this nano thing and worked in the Frank Gu Lab as a Nanomedicine Research Assistant. Here I became very familiar with the experimental design process and many lab practices as I designed, synthesized, and characterized gold nanoparticles.
For my next co-op, I made the move back to product management. I loved research, but I found the product management experiences really helped me gain an appreciation for how the end-user needs a product, something that I want to bring back to academia. I found the interview tested my ability to communicate technical ideas accurately to a layman audience, and vice versa, which was something I have considered since even before my first co-op. My final co-op was at the Wyss Institute in the Don Ingber Lab. After my diversified experience as a developer, product manager, and research assistant, I was able to bring interesting perspectives to the tables and have a unique way of approaching each situation. I’d proven I can learn a new skill very quickly, and I had prior skills obtained through courses that enabled me to lead my own project.
The key to any successful co-op position, whether you are in the interview process or are an active employee, is good communication.
BioTEC: Are you interested in working in product management in the biotech space?
Arianna: Yes, I am definitely interested in biotech product management. I essentially strive to be in a role where I can collaborate with others on different technical endeavors, eventually getting to the point where I can guide and assist them in any way I can to see multiple projects through. This role can manifest itself anywhere, for example as an R&D manager or a university professor.
BioTEC: What kind of products are you interested in?
Arianna: I am very open-minded and can see myself pursuing a wide variety of projects in the future. If you had asked me in my first or second year of university if I ever thought about working on cells, I would have definitely said no. Yet, I ended up doing it for my fourth-year design project and it opened me up to a field that is now a large component of what my future master’s work is in.
BioTEC: Lastly, what would you say to yourself if you could go back to early undergrad? What are some suggestions you would like to give to students now?
Arianna: I’d probably just give myself a tiny pep talk, like “you can do it! Your hard work will pay off!”. I wouldn’t want to say anything to really change much. To students now, I’d suggest being open to as many new experiences as possible. Don’t be afraid to try new things outside of your field. Even if you are working in an internship within your field, do your best to ask your supervisors for more opportunities like taking more of a leadership position, running your own project, or just trying something new because you never know where that could take you.
I had a very focused, specific idea of where I could go in the future as a nanotechnology student but I used coop to take a plunge in a different direction and discovered more about myself and what I love to do.
Interested in connecting with Arianna? Check out her Linkedin here