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June 2011
 
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Anything But Ordinary

The Mayo Innovation Scholars Program provides an extraordinary opportunity for high-achieving Katies to blend scholarship with
real-world experience.


A team of St. Catherine students traveled to Rochester this past winter to present its research before a team of Mayo Clinic doctors and researchers as part of the one-of-a-kind Mayo Innovation Scholars Program. Pictured are (left to right): Alejandra Danielson Castillo '04, Jessica Narveson, Sarah Nelson, Kaitlyn Nielson, Sally Cook and Connie Hakanson '08. Hakanson led another research team from Macalester College.

BY TIM BRADY | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHER STONEMAN

The first trip to Rochester, Minnesota, back in December, was a white-knuckler for graduate team leader Alejandra Danielson Castillo '04, and her group of students from St. Catherine University. Castillo's car rattled like a hay wagon for the last half of the trip as the remnants of the previous day's 16-inch snowfall accumulated in her wheel-wells.

Months later, in March, before their second scheduled trip, those same students worried that they'd awaken to another massive snowfall. One slept fitfully, fearing the alarm would not go off. Two others didn't get any sleep at all.

Under the circumstances, just getting to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic on that March day was a relief. Anxiety quickly followed, however, when the young researchers discovered that their presentation would take place not in a large auditorium, the audience seated a comfortable distance away; instead, Sally Cook, Jessica Narveson, Sarah Nelson, Kaitlyn Nielson and Danielson Castillo were shown to a small seminar room, crowded with other teams of college students and their professors.

More intimidating were the several rows of serious-looking clinicians, clipboards in hand and pens poised — apparently waiting to scribble "ill-prepared" at the slightest lack of polish in the presentation. This select group of Katies had been chosen to participate in the one-of-a-kind Mayo Innovation Scholars Program (MISP). No one told them it would be easy.

Founded in 2006 by retired Medtronic executive John Meslow in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic Office of Intellectual Property and the Minnesota Private College Council (MPCC), MISP brings together students from a variety of undergraduate disciplines. The goal: to work at "the interface of innovations in science and medicine and the fields of intellectual property, marketing and business development."

Mayo provides organizers with information on projects and inventions that staff members have submitted to the organization's Office of Intellectual Property (OIP). Groups of top students from a select group of MPCC schools exhaustively research these ideas and create business and marketing plans, which they present six months later to Mayo staff at the clinic in Rochester. It's a unique opportunity for undergraduates to work with an internationally respected institution.

St. Catherine University has participated in MISP for the past two years. Professor of Biology John Pellegrini took the initial lead in organizing the University's participation in the program and continues to help choose undergrad participants. Associate Professor Rebecca Hawthorne, director of the Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership program at St. Catherine, oversees the University's graduate student involvement.

"I've been told that the Office of Intellectual Property at Mayo gets an invention idea every day of the year," says Pellegrini, "so you can imagine how different individual projects might be. There are also variations in the level of participation from the people involved. The first year, Mayo was very accessible to our students, not as much this year."

These variations are all part of the plan, according to Kurt Olson, an associate professor of biology at St. Catherine, who served as a faculty mentor to MISP this past year. "This is a great opportunity for students to get real-world experience in how the medical science business is conducted," he says. "Students are meant to be on their own; they're not supposed to have easy access to the answers. They get guidance, but they're expected to figure things out for themselves."

Students receive a $1,000 stipend for their work, but the extra hours they put in — up to six hours a day toward the end of the project — comes in addition to their regular student workload. They receive no college credit for their participation. "These women have to be deeply committed," Olson says.

There is an upside. Working in such a rigorous, high-profile program already has garnered recognition in the job market for last year's participants. One young woman's employer hired her primarily because of her work with Mayo Innovation Scholars. In addition, last year's project drew the attention of a local medical device company, which asked the group to continue working on the presentation with an eye toward taking it out to market.

Alejandra Danielson Castillo (left) Connie Hakanson

Graduate team leaders
and MAOL students Alejandra Danielson Castillo '04 and Connie Hakanson '09

Hawthorne chose two MAOL students to serve as graduate team leaders to a pair of undergraduate teams this year. Danielson Castillo, a native of Managua, Nicaragua, earned her bachelor's degree at St. Catherine in 2004 and later worked in marketing and sales. She oversaw the group from St. Kate's. Connie Hakanson '08 — who has worked for nine years as a network management director in provider relations at Blue Cross Blue Shield — guided a team of undergraduates from Macalester College.

Both viewed their roles more as mentors than participants. "I tried to ensure that my students understood the overall direction that we needed to go toward," Hakanson says, "but I wasn't going to give them step-by-step direction; I wasn't going to do the work."

"I told them at the outset, 'I am not your boss,'" Danielson Castillo recalls. "My job was to provide guidance and serve as a liaison between the scientists at Mayo and our students. They had to dig for the answers."

The Mayo Innovation Scholars Program demands a combination of marketing and science skills, and the four St. Kate's undergraduates were selected from those disciplines. Seniors Sally Cook and Jessica Narveson are majoring in healthcare sales, Sarah Nelson is a junior majoring in biochemistry, and Kaitlyn Nielson is a junior majoring in biology.

Given the demands of the program, students need to demonstrate high academic achievement and show a willingness to take on significant extra work. They also need a measure of poise and polish to stand before a group of Mayo professionals and talk about complex subjects to which they'd been introduced only six months before. Add in a collegial, collaborative spirit, and you get the essence of the Mayo Innovation scholar.

"These were all outstanding candidates from the get-go," says Olson, the biology professor.

Sally Cook, a senior from Ankeny, Iowa, is a runner who "feels lost if I don't get my five miles in every day." She's a go-getter, says Danielson Castillo, "willing to take ownership of a problem and good at understanding the big picture." Cook hopes to work in healthcare sales. She's got an internship lined up at 3M this summer after graduation.

Sarah Nelson, the junior in biochemistry, is from Bayport, Minnesota. Danielson Castillo describes her as focused and on task, with a gift for translating scientific esotery into layperson's language. She plans to pursue her doctorate and become a professor, perhaps researching in cancer and genetics.

Senior Jessica Narveson from Plymouth, Minnesota, spent a semester last year studying marketing in Shanghai and continues to work on her fluency in Mandarin. Narveson volunteers for a Twin Cities nonprofit that helps women transition back into the workforce. She was the note-taker of the group, making sure all details were covered.

Kaitlyn Nielson, a junior from Superior, Wisconsin, studies biology in the pre-med program at St. Kate's and, like the others, was invited by faculty advisors to apply for MISP. Nielson brought an ability to "think outside the box," according to Danielson Castillo. "She was very good at expanding on information collected by the group and offering telling details that added depth to the presentation."

All four young women came together for the first time last October, when they received a packet of materials from Mayo, which included the invention that they were to analyze and market. Proprietary interests of the inventor and requirements by the Mayo Office of Intellectual Property forbid detailed descriptions — beyond saying that the project dealt with gallstones.

The students were surprised when they opened the packet from Mayo. "The device was hand-drawn by the inventor," says Nielson. "They sent us scans of these images."

"It was all a little abstract to us," Narveson adds. "Plus the medical problem it addressed [gallstones] was not one of the more widely publicized areas of medical invention. It wasn't cardiac stuff. We knew that research was not going to be simple and that we had a lot of work to do right from the beginning."

Danielson Castillo kept her students on task by emphasizing the deliverables required by Mayo. "We were asked to do what's called a SWOT analysis," she says, "assessing the market strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the device being considered by the Mayo intellectual properties people. We had to give them a list of final recommendations for the idea. We had to look at ethical considerations in its marketing and creation. And we had to do the presentation to staff at Mayo at the end of the six months."

She emphasized that all the students should become familiar with every aspect of the project. That stretched them beyond the comfort zones of their respective majors. "The first time [the healthcare sales students] started slinging around that SWOT analysis stuff, I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'" says biochemistry major Sarah Nelson with a laugh.

The two healthcare sales majors had similar qualms about learning the scientific intricacies of the project. "Am I the only one not getting this?" Cook wondered.

In December, the group made its snowy, hair-raising trip to Mayo armed with a list of questions for the inventor. Unfortunately, once they arrived there, they learned that the snowstorm had kept him away. So, the St. Catherine team headed back to St. Paul with most of its questions unanswered, fully experiencing the ambiguity and unpredictability that's com- mon to scientific inquiry.

MISP is experiential learning, not a competition. The program is a means for students to learn how to handle the sort of problems that arise in the workaday world where science and business intersect. It's an experience in which students have to figure things out for themselves. And that's what proceeded to happen between the first trip to Mayo in December and the second trip in March.

"Second semester was very hard," says Danielson Castillo. "everyone's schedule changed. We had a ton of work to do with the Mayo project. There were new classes and exams. But everyone rose to the occasion."

"By the end we all got very good at keeping on task," says Nielson. "each person knew what she was supposed to be doing and did it."

"At some point in those last few weeks before the presentation, we all figured out that this was never going to be entirely clear cut," says Cook. "We were never going to get all the answers that we hoped to. In the end, we were just going to have to learn how to do it on our own."

On the day of the presentation, looking sharp in suits and dresses, the four members of the St. Catherine University Mayo Innovation Scholars Program team sat at a long table on the far side of the crowded seminar room, waiting their turn at the lectern.

Kaitlyn Nielson was first to make the long walk. As she finished readying her PowerPoint presentation, she looked out into the audience, trying to avoid the eyes of the Mayo staff. Instead, she focused on her contemporaries, the other student teams, including Connie Hakanson's group from Macalester, and began an introduction to the gallbladder and the formation of stones.

Sarah Nelson made the second trip across the stage to describe current treatments for gallstones. Sally Cook was next, offering the team's SWOT analysis for the invention, again in PowerPoint. Jessica Narveson described possible licensing partners and marketing possibilities. Then Danielson Castillo wrapped things up with a description of the ethical considerations involved in producing and selling the device.

All four Katies stood together at the front of the stage to handle follow-up questions, which were brief and answered concisely. By the time Danielson Castillo's "Any more questions?" was met with silence, only a hard-hearted observer would have graded the quartet as anything less than professional. The sense of relief emanating from the stage was palpable. After six arduous months, the project finally was completed.

Participants in Mayo Innovation Scholars receive no awards; the colleges and universities that take part aren't ranked by performance. even the folks from Mayo's Office of Intellectual Property are there not to judge but to glean ideas that will help de- termine if the ideas reviewed by the MISP students have commercial potential.

The St. Catherine students have recommended to Mayo that this idea for gallstone treatment is worth pursuing in the marketplace. Whether the students have a role in its future marketing, as last year's group did, is yet to be determined.

The MISP group opted to meet a month after its presentation to debrief and let off some steam. Danielson Castillo's one-year-old daughter, Aurelia Flor, made frequent appearances at MISP meetings — and she is there again, all big-eyes and nook-filled mouth. As she moves from lap to lap among the St. Kate's students, Aurelia becomes a talisman, encouraging those holding her to speak.

There are complaints: The weather made travel difficult. The team sometimes felt overwhelmed. An early presentation to St. Catherine faculty offered conflicting feedback.

But as the meeting winds down, a sense of accomplishment emerges. Despite all the hours and potential for conflict among them, participants collaborated and got the project done. They praised Danielson Castillo for her facilitation and problem-solving skills. No participant felt she was carrying the load alone.

Despite all the work, Nelson says she'd do it again. Others agree that the project offered insight into the fields they hope to enter one day. "It gave me the opportunity to explore another side of scientific research," Nielson says. "It was a great experience."

Graduate team leader Danielson Castillo got to apply what she is learning in St. Kate's MAOL program. "For me personally, it was a chance to put some of my educational training to use in a practical setting," she says. "The undergraduates got to experience an actual professional circumstance. They really got a hands-on situation, and I think it will serve them well."

Later, out of earshot of the others, Danielson Castillo smiles at her daughter and adds one final note: "You know, I wouldn't mind if she becomes a St. Kate's Mayo Innovation Scholar one day."


Tim Brady is a St. Paul-based freelance writer who has written for national and regional publications.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"This is a great opportunity to get real-world experience in how the medical science business is conducted." - Associate Professor of Biology Kurt Olson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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St. Catherine professors Kurt Olson, Rebecca Hawthorne and John Pellegrini (left to right) guided the St. Kate's researchers through the months-long project.

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"I told them at the outset, 'I am not your boss.' The students had to dig for the answers." - Alejandra Danielson Castillo '04