Biology student navigates way through Northeastern to success
by Emily Ashbolt, Biomedical Physics, 2017
Leah Simmons described herself as a very typical freshman biology major when she came to Northeastern after transferring from the University of New Hampshire. “I was pre-med, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I knew exactly what kind of doctor I wanted to be.”
But this state of knowing did not last forever. “One day – I can’t even give you a reason, it just kind of happened – I thought to myself, what if this isn’t what I want to do? And I went from knowing everything, to knowing nothing.”
It had always seemed to Simmons that as a biology major, there were only two options for your future: “You either get into research and get a PhD, or you go to medical school and become a doctor.” But this wasn’t enough for her, and that is where co-op came in. “I wanted to see what other options were out there.”
Simmons took her first co-op at Cubist Pharmaceuticals (now Merck) in parts manufacturing. The position was so much more than just fetching coffee, as she had imagined an internship might be. Instead, she was being trained by industry professionals to operate machinery used to orchestrate the initial antibiotic process.
Simmons developed a strong network of connections during her time at Cubist. “It was such a great network, and I still talk to some of [my former co-workers] nearly every day. My boss and I used to have the most amazing conversations about life, and my goals.” It is a network Simmons has continued to go back to throughout her career for advice and knowledge. However, when her time there was up, Simmons felt it was time to move on.
“I really enjoyed my time at Cubist, but for my next co-op, I wanted to do something different. I feel like you aren’t taking full advantage of co-op if you don’t do something different while you have the chance.”
Simmons’ next co-op was at the Boston Beer Company Inc. (BBC), more well known as the brewery behind Sam Adams beer. It was a very different environment from the one she worked in before: “I went from one extreme to the other. Cubist was great, but it was such a large company, it was really serious in some ways. I went from there to Sam Adams, which was such a fun environment, such a lighthearted way to see a business being run.”
Simmons’ was hired as a lab technician. She was in charge of quality control of both the experimental and established beers BBC produces. A highlight was working on Double Rebel IPA, a beer that was released into the market. While at BBC, Simmons’ boss and another employe left the company for other positions, leaving Simmons and one other person to run the lab on their own. “By the end, I was handling the whole lab, and I had to learn a lot of stuff that no one else was there to explain to me.” It was quite the experience, and one she enjoyed immensely, but as Simmons explained, “I still hadn’t found ‘it.’”
For her last co-op, the stakes seemed higher. “I was looking for my last co-op and was feeling really discouraged, I’d had some interviews and some offers, but nothing felt right, and I had this fear of choosing the wrong one. For my last one, I really needed to pick [a job] that mattered.”
It was at this point that she received an email from Prof. Dori Woods, a Northeastern-based researcher who came to the university in 2010 from Massachusetts General Hospital with her co-PI Prof. Jonathan Tilly to continue their pioneering fertility research. Woods wanted to know if Simmons was interested in volunteering in their lab, the Laboratory for Aging and Infertility Research (LAIR). For Simmons, this opportunity was what she had been waiting for.
As an IVF baby, Simmons had always been interested in the kind of human fertility research Tilly and Woods were working on. She quickly turned this most recent offer into a co-op position. She spent her last co-op at Northeastern working on creating an organelle-sorting platform. “It was the best I could have asked for,” said Simmons.”It introduced me to a field I am so passionate about.”
Upon graduating Northeastern in May 2016, Simmons was hired by Vertex Pharmaceuticals to work in their Neurobiology and Oncology Drug Discovery Department. She says her co-op experiences at Northeastern not only helped her get the job at Vertex, they also prepared her for life after graduation. “If you have three amazing co-ops, or if you have three co-ops that are partially good and partially bad, either way you are going to get all that knowledge, experience and wisdom.”
With so many opportunities ahead of her, Simmons has no hesitation when she is asked to look back at the journey that brought her here. “People ask me, ‘Did you like Northeastern?’, and my go-to response is, ‘Northeastern is the best decision I ever made.’”