A Co-Authorship Opens Doors for an Amgen Scholar

Growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, Lisa Volpatti had an early interest in science and engineering starting in high school. Her passion for chemical engineering took her to the University of Pittsburgh, then to the Amgen Scholars Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, and then across the pond to the University of Cambridge for her master’s and back, where she is now pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT.

A formative part of her journey was becoming second author on a publication that sprang from her Amgen Scholars summer. “I worked hard during my summer as an Amgen Scholar, but I never imagined that would amount to being the second author on a publication,” Volpatti says.

Set to finish her Ph.D. in chemical engineering in December and to then start a postdoc in immunoengineering January 2020, Volpatti dreams of starting her own lab and training the next generation of scientists. She is working on a next-gen system for diabetes treatments.

We spoke with Volpatti about her scientific journey, Amgen Scholars experience, and goals for the future.

ASP: How did you become interested in science?

I fell in love with chemistry in my first high school chem class. I’ve always wanted to help as many people as possible with my career, and studying chemical engineering seemed like a great way to do that. I now apply my expertise in chemistry and engineering to the field of drug delivery — to make existing therapeutics more effective by making sure they get to where they are needed when they are needed. It’s important to me that my work can make a difference and improve patients’ quality of life.

ASP: Would you please describe your path to the Amgen Scholars program?

After my sophomore year of undergrad, I did an internship in industry, where I did quintessential process engineering ⁠— scaling up reactions from the lab bench to make them in larger quantities at a pilot plant. While this is very important work, I knew it just wasn’t for me. I started undergraduate research the fall semester of my junior year and fell in love. I was looking up potential summer opportunities and came across the Amgen Scholars Program. It seemed like the perfect fit: I was excited to learn about Amgen and the pharmaceutical industry while also conducting research at a university. I really think the Amgen Scholars Program was a turning point in my career. It was during this summer that I solidified my desire to conduct research and apply for a Ph.D. program.

ASP: What was your research on as an Amgen Scholars and what was it like to have your research be part of a publication?

I worked with Prof. Suzie Pun in the department of bioengineering at the University of Washington on polymeric gene delivery systems. My postdoc mentor (Dr. Hua Wei) taught me polymer synthesis and various characterization techniques. We complexed our polymers with DNA and tested how well they could make cells glow by expressing firefly luciferase.

The project was set up really well so that I could get started right away and make some significant progress over the course of the summer. I did a lot of the in vitro work for the paper, and after I left, Dr. Wei conducted in vivo work with mouse models and completed the project.

I was very excited that I had the opportunity to contribute to the publication, and it was actually designated a VIP paper in Angewandte Chemie, which is given to only 5% of submissions. I have no doubt that this experience and corresponding publication helped me in my fellowship and graduate school applications, including winning the NSF GRFP, the Whitaker International Fellowship, and acceptance into the University of Cambridge.

ASP: What was your favorite part of the Amgen Scholars program?

It’s so hard to choose! It’s a 50/50 split between doing the actual science and experiencing a different environment with a diverse group of people in my cohort. It was my first experience living in a different city for more than a couple of weeks, and I really enjoyed meeting people from diverse backgrounds and learning about their experiences at different universities.

ASP: Can you share a memorable story from the program?

Volpatti: We went to Olympic National Park as a bonding experience with the cohort at the beginning of the program. In typical fashion, I wanted to do a difficult hike despite the fact that we had limited time. The main group went for a scenic walk, but a couple of us went for a longer hike even though it was not recommended. We had to start running in the second half to make it back in time — which can also be seen as a metaphor for my time in the lab. I always have high expectations and have to work hard to squeeze everything into the allotted amount of time but somehow always seem to get it done.

ASP: How did the Amgen Scholars change your perspective on your career path?

The experience made me certain that research was the path for me and that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. More significantly, it opened my eyes to research and opportunities outside of Pittsburgh where I had spent my entire life. The most life-changing moment was when people from the scholarships office at the University of Washington came to give a presentation to our cohort. They told us about the opportunity to apply to different fellowships to go abroad and conduct research for a year. Somehow this just stuck, and I was set on gaining an international perspective on research. This decision ultimately led to my completing a research-based master’s degree in Cambridge.

ASP: Have you stayed in touch with any scholars from your cohort? Any lasting relationships with mentors?

Yes! We had several reunions after the program, and I still stay in touch with many of the members of my cohort from time to time. One scholar recently visited Boston and we met up to catch up. I also maintain a relationship with Prof. Pun and have met up with her when she has given seminars at MIT.

ASP: What is your ultimate goal?

My ultimate goal is to become a professor, build a lab of my own, and train the next generation of scientists. My research now focuses on creating better diabetes therapies with a self-regulated insulin delivery system. Many diabetic patients have to constantly monitor their blood sugar and inject the appropriate amount of insulin up to 6 times per day. We are working to create a drug delivery system that would release insulin only when blood sugar levels are high and thus regulate itself. The potential impacts of this work are huge: The system would allow patients to achieve better glycemic control without risk of having their blood sugar get too low, and it would reduce the patient burden significantly to increase compliance.