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After earning his undergraduate degree in molecular and cell biology from UC Berkeley, Kenneth Wilson M.S. ’14 searched for a hands-on graduate program that would take him out of the lecture hall and into the lab.

The Novato native did not have to look far, enrolling in Dominican University of California’s MS in Biological Sciences, an intensive research-based program that places students alongside world-class scientists from both the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and BioMarin.

“I was aware of Dominican University’s good reputation,” he said. “The connection to the Buck Institute was a major selling point for me. The program’s structure also was appealing, with the majority of the program being dedicated to research.”

Today, Wilson is a doctoral researcher in the Buck/University of Southern California Ph.D. Biology of Aging program. He credits the Dominican M.S. for helping him build an academic résumé that prepared him for the rigors of his Ph.D. work.

“Without the experience I gained in the Dominican program and the program’s style I would not be where I am today,” Wilson said.

Launched in 2008, the M.S. in the School of Health and Natural Sciences is a unique partnership between a university, a research institute, and industry. With lab placements beginning in the first semester, students work alongside some of the world’s top scientists on a wide variety of research focused on detecting, preventing, and treating age-related conditions and diseases.

Over 80 percent of M.S. graduates have gone on to work in a research setting or continue their education. Employers have included Chevron, Dow Pharmaceutical, Genentech, Novartis, Stanford, UC San Francisco, Raptor Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, and Kaiser Permanente. Several M.S. grads also were hired by the Buck and BioMarin.

More than 20 M.S. alumni have continued their studies in Ph.D., M.D., Pharm. D, M.B.A., and J.D. programs at universities throughout the country, including USC, Harvard, Northwestern, UC Davis, Notre Dame University, the University of Florida, the University of Colorado, and UC San Francisco.

Working in the lab at the Buck — the world’s first biomedical research institution devoted solely to research on aging — helped Wilson develop a scientific mind by teaching him how to ask biological questions, as well as how to investigate the answers to these questions. His research is focused on understanding how genetic variation influenced an individual's response to dietary restriction, specifically with regards to body weight, triglyceride storage, and resistance to starvation stress.

“The ability to work full-time in a real laboratory setting provided me with an experience I had never had before and gave me meaningful exposure to the world of academic science,” Wilson said. “I was able to learn techniques that I had learned about in school, but had never actually practiced before.”

Dr. Pankaj Kapahi is a principal investigator at the Buck, whose lab studies the role of nutrition and energy metabolism in lifespan and disease. He was instrumental in creating the M.S. program.

Program Director Dr. Meredith Protas, an assistant professor of biology at Dominican, notes that the lab provides the students with a team of mentors, advisors, and advocates.

“The whole lab can often be a very welcoming environment. There’s just a lot of people that can help the student decide what path to go.”

“These people span a range of experiences,” Kapahi added.

“You get mentored by post-docs and students who are in the forefront of aging research. You get mentored by lab heads who are the best in their field, and you are also amongst peers who are at an institute which is regarded as one of the best institutes in geroscience or aging research.”

Kapahi was Wilson’s mentor in the M.S. program and Wilson continues to work in the Kapahi lab.

“In his role as my supervisor and adviser, he challenged me to think critically and helped me build the framework for my research project while also serving as a source of motivation through his own scientific fascination and energy.”

In 2019 Catherine Chang was in the first year of the master’s program and was impressed with both the opportunities the program offers and the support she has received. Chang enrolled in the program after receiving a bachelor's degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from UC Santa Cruz in 2016.

At the Buck, Catherine joined the Zhou Lab to pursue her research interest in protein folding and regulation. She also received mentoring from Wilson thanks to the Buck Graduate Student Society’s buddy system, pairing new students with peers who have been at the Buck for a while.

“So far, every principal investigator that I’ve met, they’ve been top notch,” said Chang, now a Senior Research Associate with Assay Strategy and Development. “Whether I have a question about classes or if I need someone to read over my grant application or project proposal, they’ll be there.”

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