As a high school student Benjamin Craig's motto was, "Here's my plate, load it on." He brought that mentality with him to Emmanuel, where he has always been ready to take on a new opportunity.
During his time at Emmanuel, biology major Nicholas Verdini '17 forged a bold and enterprising path toward his goal of becoming a physician, acquiring research experience in Emmanuel's state-of-the-art laboratories as well as renowned nearby institutions.
He secured post-graduate employment in the Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest biomedical research agency in the world.
Verdini's interest in science and medicine—hematology in particular, as blood disorders offer exposure to many different areas—developed in high school, and he was drawn to Emmanuel College because of its community and central Boston location. In his first year on campus, he began working in Emmanuel's chemistry lab, preparing experiments and maintaining the space. As his first academic year ended, he discussed research possibilities with Assistant Professor of Biology Padraig Deighan and soon became a part of Deighan's summer research group.
"I didn't have any frame of reference for what doing research in a laboratory would be like," Verdini said. "In Dr. Deighan's lab, we were strictly working with proteins...testing and creating an atlas of how any two interact. Everything I did in the lab was new to me, and I loved it."
Verdini continued to work in Dr. Deighan's lab the following academic year and, hoping to gain some insight into potential careers as the next summer, and his junior year, approached, he reached out to the head of hematology at Boston Children's Hospital for advice.
"I didn't really even expect a response," he said. "But he e-mailed me within two days. I offered to walk over and speak with him in person and he agreed. He spent some time with me, telling me about his path, as well as his daughter's path because she had just entered medical school."
At the end of their conversation, Verdini was offered an opportunity to work in the hematology lab over the summer.
"He told me I could take some time to think about it, but of course I accepted immediately," he said. Deighan worked with him to complete his hours in Emmanuel's lab in the early weeks of the summer, and he began his role as a laboratory assistant at Boston Children's Hospital in June.
"It was a whole new view of medicine," he said of the work he was able to observe, which included routine blood testing and screening as well as the diagnosis of diseases such as leukemia and malaria. The experience also helped solidify his career goals. "I was able to interact with a lot of doctors and nurses, shadowing them on patient rounds. I think it's hard for a lot of students at this stage to know if they really want to be a doctor, because they have no access to it. I know my work here will help me during medical school."
At the same time, Verdini was also browsing the careers section of pharmaceutical giant Merck Research Laboratories' website. A paid internship in the Department of Genetics and Pharmacogenomics through the Merck Future Talent Program caught his eye.
"I had seen the academic side of research, and I wanted to see the industry side," he said. "Under the best circumstances, it takes seven years to develop a drug, and I thought it would be important to see even a piece of how that happens."
He applied, and then pushed the opportunity to the back of his mind as he dove into his junior year, staying busy with on-campus research and his work at Boston Children's Hospital. When he was eventually contacted by Merck the following spring, he began a long interview process alongside six students from other area colleges. In an effort to take advantage of the face time with a Merck scientist whose work he respected—regardless of whether or not he got the position—he brought in one of the scientist's publications to the interview in hopes of getting some questions answered. He got the opportunity to talk, as well as the summer internship.
He shifted his work at Boston Children's to the evening and took the position at Merck, where he studied a genetic mutation that occurs in some African Americans that resists a particular parasite but makes them predisposed to chronic kidney disease.
"They treated me a like any other employee," Verdini said. "I learned a lot and met a lot of wonderful people."
His experience and training to that point gave him the confidence to apply to the prestigious and competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program (UGSP), which offers need-based scholarships to students committed to careers in biomedical, behavioral, and social science health-related research. The scholarships comes with a "payback" year, in which recipients continue their training as a full-time employee at an NIH research lab
"I wasn't even sure if I was going to apply, looking at the names of past recipients and seeing names from Columbia and Harvard," he said. "There were 200 people in the initial round of interviews, and only 12 were going to be chosen. But my professors prepared me well for the interview process."
In addition to preparation from his faculty mentors, Verdini began the interview process with an idea of which NIH scientist he would someday like to work with. The scholarship committee recognized his ambition and his unique perspective, and awarded him funding for his senior year at Emmanuel.
"Don't be intimidated. You just have to be authentic and put it all on the table," is Verdini's advice to students looking to pursue big opportunities. "It also helps to build a great network of connections and find people who will speak well on your behalf."
After graduation, Verdini served for a year as a research fellow under leading cancer researcher Terry Fry, MD in the pediatric oncology branch at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) developing CAR T cell therapies for pediatric ALL. He is currently an Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Fellow under Dr. Andrea Apolo, M.D.
Along with the valuable connections made with faculty, Verdini credits Emmanuel's location in the heart of Boston for providing him with big city opportunities in a small college setting.
"We have access to so many opportunities," he said. "It's great to be so close to everything. I always felt I had some edge on whatever I was pursuing, because I could make those one-on-one connections."