Bioengineering Alumnus Sammy Pontrelli ’12, M.S. ’13 Shares His Experience
Bioengineering alumnus Sammy Pontrelli ’12, M.S. ’13 has gone a long way since his time at SCU. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UCLA and is now doing a post-doc in Zurich, Switzerland. Here he shares his thoughts on his experience at SCU and where his Bronco engineering will take him in the future.
I chose SCU because the campus immediately felt like home, and I knew people who went to SCU before me and gave some fantastic feedback. It felt right.
When I started, I really wanted to go to med school. I joined the bioengineering department in part because I wanted to learn practical skills, and frankly, because bioengineers have the highest preparedness and acceptance for medical school. However, as time went by, I realized that going to med school and ultimately becoming a doctor would not satisfy my passion for designing and exploring. As a fourth year undergraduate at SCU, I had to make the decision between staying as a researcher or going to med school, and I made the choice to continue my academic career in the master’s program. I specifically remember having long talks with all of the bioengineering faculty about this, and they helped me make a level-minded decision about my future.
At SCU the classes are pretty small and the education is more personalized than at other schools. Dr. [Zhiwen] Zhang used to challenge us to find scientific literature that would prove the “correct” answers to his test are not definitively correct. I was a pretty stubborn student, so that exercise ended up being a super educational experience.
I remember one time I was in a graduate class with 6 or so other students taught by Dr. [Yuling] Yan. She always went the extra mile to supplement her class with something a bit unique. Dr. Yan was teaching us about different types of microscopes and she gave us each these little microscopes we can attach to our phones to emphasize some concepts. It was a cool lesson to bring home.
What was really amazing is that our feedback was taken extremely seriously by all the faculty. It’s a relatively small (yet growing) department, and there is nothing in the way of adapting to what students want.
Personally, I found that hands-on experience in the lab is a passion of mine. I love the freedom it provides on many levels, especially the ability to exercise my own self-motivation. After I left SCU, I went to UCLA to get a PhD. UCLA is heavily research focused, and the drive for academic prowess may sometimes (but certainly not always) overshadow providing students with optimal learning opportunities. Even with a good research opportunity, master’s students and undergraduates may or may not receive close supervision and respect for their efforts. In my opinion, close supervision provides a huge advantage in setting an optimal trajectory for a young scientist. I don't in any way mean to criticize UCLA or other research institutions, but rather, I want to point out that the drive to produce the most cutting-edge research results in values that are different than SCU’s.
At SCU, instead of putting Nature papers as a top priority, students are the top priority. I have never heard a professor at SCU deny a student the privilege of working in the lab. On top of that, undergraduate senior design projects are a great way to introduce students to research life. Students are given the opportunity to come up with their own research ideas and execute them with close guidance. It is fantastic.
While getting a master's degree, I was given an opportunity by Dr. Zhang to do research with him. Dr. Zhang has the drive to do great and impactful science. This drive is contagious and motivating. He emphasized the need to focus on the big picture of a research project while also taking care of the small details that go into constructing a proper experiment. Combined with his close supervision in learning how to follow the scientific method, and his advice in how to navigate the academic world, he primed me for my further career at UCLA. I am proud of SCU, Dr. Zhang, and ultimately my Ph.D. from UCLA, and I am extremely fortunate to have received such an opportunity.
For my Ph.D. research, I was finding new ways to engineer bacteria to produce biofuels. I tried adding new genes, deleting genes and evolving them. Eventually I became super interested in how life adapts when we try to manipulate it. It’s a big problem when we want to engineer a specific behavior and bacteria change on their own, but I found it fascinating.
I’m now a postdoc at ETH, a STEM university in Zurich, Switzerland. I’m doing research here in metabolomics—I want to measure concentrations of molecules inside cells, because it can tell us a lot about how biological systems function. My application is in studying how microbial communities function together. Microbial communities are everywhere—our gut, inside our gums, in the ocean, and even in the air. There’s a lot for us to learn.
In the future I definitely want to be a professor. I know it’s a pretty competitive position, but I am dead set on this. So, I’m working as hard as I can. The future is opaque right now, so future plans are TBD.
My advice for prospective students: Go for it. If you are going to get your master’s degree, do it at SCU. You are going to get a very holistic education and training. It will get you ready for any career ahead, whether it is pursuing a Ph.D. or getting a job in the biotech industry. You will likely not get the same level of mentorship and personalized education anywhere else, so appreciate it.