Michaela Copp, who is a soon-to-be biomedical engineering graduate with a Ph.D. from NC State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, knew back during her undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University that she wanted to continue doing research.
“My work has been largely around the regenerative medicine space, so think biology of aging,” Copp said. “I was working with Alzheimer’s in my undergraduate research, and stem cells, but I really wanted to stay in that area.”
When she realized that all the interesting jobs required a Ph.D., she began looking into programs at different universities, including at both NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill. As it turned out, she didn’t have to decide between the two.
Copp enrolled in the UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), allowing her to use resources from and attend classes at both institutions.
“We are a joint department at our core, so for the first year, I was working and doing classes on both campuses,” Copp said.
NC State has the College of Veterinary Medicine, while UNC has the School of Medicine and the Adams School of Dentistry. The biomedical engineering shuttle takes students between the two campuses.
“My lab was based solely at UNC, but I was taking classes at NC State and we had collaborators,” she continued. “So for example, when our collaborators at the vet school would get a donor, we would go in and help with the surgical side of things and collect samples.”
With the support of her advisor, Assistant Professor Dr. Brian Diekman, Copp successfully defended her thesis on March 28. After graduation, she will move to Denver, CO and work for McKinsey & Company as an Associate Consultant.
Though UNC-Chapel Hill is her home institution, as Copp refers to it, she’s participated in programs at NC State, including the Summer Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (SIRI) and the Young Scholars Program offered by the Comparative Medicine Institute (CMI) at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Through SIRI, Copp worked with NC State Associate Professor of Equine Orthopedic Surgery Lauren Schnabel at the vet school. “Since I do osteoarthritis research here, they were able to provide us cartilage, mostly horse, or equine, cartilage,” said Copp. “This collaboration led to a first author paper that was published in 2019.”
Back when she was looking at different programs, Copp noted that students in the UNC/NC State BME department had good work-life balance that she wasn’t seeing at a lot of the other programs.
She’s proud of her accomplishments from her time in the joint program, but not all of those accomplishments are academic. She’s heavily involved in different extracurriculars, plus she’s done consulting work and worked part-time in a business development internship.
“I wanted the opportunity to work in the research lab and progress there and explore that side of things, but also explore other avenues,” she said. “I don’t think that would have been as accepted or allowed at other universities.”
She’s also been able to give presentations, including one on the value of mentoring when her undergraduate student, Maggie Flanders, was selected to give a talk and introduce her research at a CMI event. Flanders graduated in 2019 with a degree in biological sciences from NC State.
Perhaps most notably, Copp is a founding member of a local chapter of Nucleate, a nonprofit organization devoted to facilitating the formation of live science companies from the academic setting from Ph.D. students and post-docs. Students from NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University are getting involved and taking on leadership roles.
“It’s been really great to do happy hours with everyone and kind of promote the whole life science entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she said. “Nucleate has chapters in Europe currently, and are looking to expand into Singapore and Australia. So it’s growing as an organization, but I was helping found the Research Triangle Park chapter of that.”