"Following graduation, I will be working as an Associate Specialist in Merck’s IT Emerging Talent Rotational Program, where I will be rotating between projects in Data Science, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and Software Engineering." Read more about Kristen Ong, Undergraduate Senior
Kevin Cavallo, Undergraduate Senior
Hometown: Scarsdale, NY
BME Degree Program: B.S. in BME, Biomaterials & Drug Delivery (BMDD)
Lab affiliation: Putnam Lab
Awards/honors: BME Honors Program, Dean’s List FA ’19 - SP ’21, LSAMP Scholars Program
Being from the lower New York area, the Cornell environment was somewhat familiar to me but also quite unique. Different from my suburban hometown, there was a prevailing nature aspect of Ithaca and Cornell’s campus, and I was immediately drawn to the school for this reason when I visited. I was also very impressed by the achievements, diversity and background of the faculty at Cornell, particularly in the research space. It was clear that the education and experiences the university could provide me with would challenge me, but also help me grow. All of this together made me feel very secure in my decision to choose Cornell.
I arrived at Cornell knowing that I wanted to pursue the research and development side of medicine, so I initially enrolled as ChemE major. After taking the Intro to ChemE course, I quickly realized that I needed a curriculum that was integrative and incorporated a larger biological focus into its approach to drug development. Naturally, that curriculum was the major with the name “biomedical” in it. What I didn’t realize at the time that I switched into the BME major, however, was how interdisciplinary the field of biomedicine really is. The opportunity to become an expert in so many different subjects and see a biological problem from all these perspectives is really what has made BME extraordinary for me.
How did you decide on your BME concentration, Biomaterials & Drug Delivery (BMDD)?
Since I came to Cornell with an interest in engineering medicine and drug delivery, it was a very organic decision for me to choose BMDD as my concentration. I leveraged the sampling of concentrations that is built in to the BME course curriculum to facilitate my decision, and came to love the Biomaterials class that students are required to take. I also looked into faculty research in the BME department and found myself gravitating towards labs that conduct research in the areas of biomaterials and drug delivery.
What are some of the most important skills you’ve learned while pursuing this major?
Being able to think critically but also creatively has been a key skill that I’ve developed during my four years as a BME. Changing the biomedical landscape not only requires you to see real-world problems from an analytical standpoint, but also to develop solutions to those issues that are novel and out-of-the-box. Accepting failure has also been a hugely important development for me. When I initially started undergraduate research my junior year, I was simultaneously entering into the meat of the BME curriculum. In both scenarios, I had expectations that my first approach to solving problems surely would be the right one, and I was disappointed when I realized that failing first was what would ultimately allow me to succeed in the end. Being able to rebound from failure, understand why something failed and then reevaluate your approach to make it work based on that failure is a life-long skill that I’m glad I was able to learn early on.
What was it like to pursue and finish your degree during the pandemic?
Finishing my degree during the pandemic has panned out a lot more smoothly than I had initially thought. Both faculty and students have been extremely accommodating over the last year and a half, and have really tried to restructure courses in a way that is conducive to online learning. I was even able to continue research both in my classes and as an extracurricular, which was a major pro considering that I hoped to write an honors thesis. While it was challenging at first to adjust to a remote education, the virtual platform helped me slow things down a bit so that I had more time to focus on what I really wanted to get out of my senior year amidst the pandemic.
What advice might you give other students considering BME?
Be sure to take advantage of the infinite opportunities that come as a result of the interdisciplinarity in BME. BME allows you to dip your toes in anything from chemistry to electrical engineering, and much more. This is really helpful particularly for research and project teams, where you will likely conduct work that some sort of hybrid between all of these different subjects. You can step into virtually any academic or professional environment and be able to contribute something because of the holistic BME experience, which is quite rare.
Any interests outside of or in relationship to your scholarship?
Since I have so many interests, I’ve tried to maximize my number of involvements during my time at Cornell. Research has been a major component of my undergrad experience: I have worked in the Putnam Lab for the last two years, creating a punctal plug medical device that can be used to treat Dry Eye Disease; I have also interned with Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on separate occasions, exploring the field of oncology and therapeutic candidates for targeted treatment of different cancer types. Aside from research, I have explored more of my STEM-related interests by TAing for BME 3210 and BME 3010, as well as leading the Potions subteam of the ChemE Car project team. To satisfy my more creative side, I have worked as the photography director for Crème de Cornell (a student-run food magazine on campus) and have taken up a job in the Print Media art studios on campus. Being a member of the Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity has helped me find lifelong friendships while improving myself professionally. There are endless opportunities!
What stands out to you about your Cornell BME experience so far and why?
The fact that Cornell BME truly sets students up to go into the world and change lives through biomedicine has been a pivotal realization in my education. I remember sitting in a BME 3020 (Molecular Principles of BME) lecture one day and thinking about how the discussion on engineering CRISPR/Cas9 for gene editing will continue to revolutionize the ability to fix human health and disease; my classmates and I all have the potential to be a part of that feat. This impact of my BME education really became tangible once I successfully developed two medical devices at the end of my senior year, in my honors research and in the BME senior design class.
What’s the next step for you?
I am still finalizing plans for the future, but they will definitely be in the biotechnology/pharmaceutical space. It has been really interesting to learn about my PI’s many entrepreneurial undertakings, and that has inspired me to put a hold on academic research and explore the industry field before pursuing higher education.
Favorite quote that helps inspire you in your work/life?
I read a book in high school once that was about pieces of life advice compiled by many different authors. One quote in particular stood out to me and it has stuck with me ever since:
“If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck but you think it’s a pig, it’s a pig.”
It’s a funny way of saying it, but follow your intuition! You will always know yourself better than anyone else, whether it be throughout life or in your career, so be confident in who you are and what you do. It goes a long way.