NSF I-Corps Graduate Student Bootcamp: Your Work Meets Real World

NSF I-Corps Site of Southeastern Wisconsin team, Brian Thompson (LEC / Executive Director), Dr. Ilya Avdeev (LEC / Director of Innovation) and Madeline Horinek (LEC / Intern) partnered with Dr. Jennifer Gutzman, Department of Biological Sciences and an I-Corps program veteran in delivering a pilot bootcamp for UWM PhD students.

The online bootcamp consisted of four two-hour sessions during the second week of June (6/7/21 – 6/14/21). Students received $1,200 stipends upon successful completion of the program. The program was designed with the following learning outcomes that the students would walk away with:

  • Ability to formulate and test non-scientific hypotheses
  • Ability to identify broader impact of your research work
  • Ability to apply these methods to grant writing, job search and career development
  • Understanding of the NSF I-Corps program

The LEC teaching team asked a cohort of 18 graduate students, with research areas ranging from cell biology to engineering to environmental sciences, to get out of their comfort zones (research labs) and to directly engage various stakeholders through short interviews with the goal of identifying unique value propositions of their research. The cohort conducted 169 interviews in one week! Students interviewed peers, thesis committee members and their advisor, journal editors, faculty entrepreneurs and course instructors, industry connections and even family members.

Our working hypothesis was that the tools used by academic entrepreneurs (I-Corps / Lean Launch) could enhance PhD students’ understanding of the broader impact of their research and to better position them for successful careers. Here are some of students’ reflections on their learning through this “customer” discovery journey:

I used to think I couldn’t get much useful information from people in drastically different fields and now I think you always have something to learn from someone“

I used to think it is hard to contact people in industry or those who work in the real world but appropriate emails without selling them on anything might just do the trick! I have learned a lot to be honest! Never thought of family as stakeholders! Never thought of why professors agree to be on committees.“

“I used to think that my research can only impact my PI and me, and now I think it has a much broader impact on different stakeholders other than us.”

“I used to think that my network was limited to the university and that it would be difficult to talk to people in industry. I also used to think that my research was the only value proposition I could offer stakeholders. Now I think that my network has the potential to extend far into industry and that I myself can add value to a variety of stakeholders.”

This is what workshop participants thought about the bootcamp upon the completion:

“I liked the idea to identify the impact of my research on different people and how they affect me in my life.” 

“I liked learning a new way to view my research.”

“I liked small group activities, pushing to go out of my comfort zone, push to think differently and beyond the scope of the research field.”

“This was a mind stimulating experience and I like that a lot. It has been a while since I have interacted with others!”

Program deliverables for each participant included a short Executive Summary of what they learned about the broader impact of their research and short presentation in the I-Corps format known as “Lessons Learned Presentation.”

One of the student’s feedback offers an interesting possibility for the direction in which this pilot program might evolve in the future:

I wonder if we can add this as a curriculum for the graduate students, maybe include this in the graduate seminar class.”

Graduates of the bootcamp:

  1. Elizabeth Falat, Biological Sciences
  2. Laura Rolfs, Biological Sciences
  3. Sumona P. Dhara, Cell and Molecular neuroscience
  4. Joseph Chase, Bioinformatics
  5. Shana Rogan, Developmental Immunotoxicology
  6. Heather L Leskinen, Biological Sciences
  7. Claudia Sofia Rodriguez, Cell/Molecular Biology
  8. Samer Alanani, Biology
  9. Cody Drozd, Biology
  10. Sarah Sarich, Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  11. Sam Aworanti, Fluid and Thermal Analysis
  12. Aparna Deshmukh, Civil, Structural and Materials Engineering
  13. Grace Fasipe, Biomedical Engineering
  14. Mohammad Rizwen Ur Rahman, Microfluidics in Particle Separation
  15. Parham Mobadersani, Flow and Transport Studies in Porous Media
  16. Heather Pace, Condensed Matter Physics
  17. Niloufar Yavarishad, Electrical Engineering/ Materials Science
  18. Austin Seepersad, Energy Materials/ Solid State Physics