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Coming Full Circle

In just one year, a semester-long CAPSTONE partnership morphed into a twelve-month academic partnership between Moravian College and Merck & Co., complete with Co-Op internships, curriculum updates, and a Hound hired right out of school. Here’s the story.

When Pete Lega ’85 ran into Ben Coleman, associate professor of computer science at an on-campus career night in October 2013, he had already been given a task by his colleague: find young computer science majors who remind you of yourself when you were a student — and bring them to Merck.

Coleman and Lega have been working together on and off for the last decade in an effort to place computer science seniors at the pharmaceuticals company after graduation. But when the two got to talking this time, it turned out OpenMRS, a customized medical records system used most often in developing countries, was on both of their minds. Merck was interested in gathering data about vaccines via OpenMRS, and Coleman was looking to integrate open-source projects into the computer science curriculum.

As a result of their meeting, Coleman’s senior CAPSTONE students partnered with Merck the following spring to learn the ins and outs of the coding beast, something Coleman says “you don’t normally get to experience in an undergraduate program.” Not only did the seniors refine their skills as coders, the course also created a hierarchy of student leaders within the program.

The students did so well, it didn’t take long for Lega to drum up $50,000 from his company to fund a pilot program that would make Merck the client to a group of seven SOAR students over the summer of 2014. The SOAR undergraduates spent their 10 weeks building upon the work started by the CAPSTONE seniors, with the hope to make the medical record system more customizable. “This was an
opportunity to be embedded in a real world environment, where they had to listen to what the customer wanted and respond to them,” says Coleman, who acted as their “manager” during the summer.

“They really fit in,” Lega says of the undergraduates. “When they show up, it’s like they’re already a part of it. It’s a boost of confidence for them and for the program.” The company was so impressed, Merck’s vice president invited those students to present their work at the 4th Annual Merck Tech Innovation Summit that following October.

Lega and Coleman started making plans again. In November 2014, Moravian College was awarded a $95,000 grant from Merck to support the “Future Talent Building for IT and Innovation” project. The project would continue their partnership in 2015: First with the senior CAPSTONE students, followed by summer interns and ending the year with the pharmaceutical company participating in the College’s Co-Op pilot program in fall 2015, which will employ three Moravian undergraduates full time at Merck during the fall semester, earning academic credit and getting paid.

“What I love about this is it really gives the students a wide range of activities and experiences for their resumes, cover letters, and interviews,” says Coleman. “They now have context that you don’t naturally get out of the curriculum.” And, all the while, giving Lega the chance to fulfill his charge and find motivated computer science students to join his team.

So far, he found one: Myles Barros ’14, part of that first group of CAPSTONE seniors and one of the two who was also interning at Merck while completing his degree. Shortly after graduating, Barros became an associate specialist at the pharmaceutical company, working with students from his alma mater who are following his path through the partnership.

“It was a perfect transition into the real world,” Barros says. “The project was already pushing me to apply my theoretical knowledge to a real project that was making a difference, while teaching me things you aren’t aware of in an academic setting.”

Barros is also grateful for the opportunity to work with current students; he feels that he can empathize as they move through each phase of the partnership. “Believe it or not, they teach us stuff!” he laughs. It’s also another avenue for him to stay engaged with the college as an alumnus.

In March 2015, only one year since Barros began his own story with the partnership, he sat down with Megan Biernat and Charlie McDonald, both slated to graduate in December 2016. They’re both computer science undergraduates (McDonald also has a math major) who participated in the 10-week summer program, and have both been selected for the first Co-Op program this fall. Here is a snippet of their conversation:

Megan: Do you know what we’ll be working on this fall?

Myles: I’m pretty sure you’ll be continuing the project the seniors are working on — which has to deal with determining adherence rates for diabetes patients on Medicare and the rate at which they are being tested for…what’s it called?

Charlie: HA1C.

Myles: Right! Doctors are supposed to have their patients tested four times a year. The motivating question is: given a data set indicating referrals from a doctor to a clinic for testing, how close to four times a year are doctors in the US getting?

Moravian College: How does it feel to know you’re going to be applying your computer science skills to something that will affect real lives?

Megan: Having the experience last summer shined light on it for me: you can actually make an impact. I never thought I could do something like that with CS.

Charlie: I started doing computer development when I was in high school, and that gave me a window into what could be done, but stuff like this blows my mind.

Moravian College: Myles, what do you miss most about the computer science program at the College?

Myles: The collaboration between students. I miss being able to talk to someone else in the lab and start asking questions and, in 20 minutes, knowing all about something else. Moravian offers breadth where Merck offers depth, in that we push each other further within a defined space but we don’t have that, “Oh, I’ve never considered that,” aspect. I think the lab space and Dr. Coleman have a lot to do with that.

Charlie: Yeah. I never thought I would be having the chair of the department asking me, “What’s a good fit for you? Let’s make sure you’re being challenged.”

Megan: Dr. Coleman is good at developing a type of family atmosphere. I was going to major in physics but I didn’t get that sense of community that I get with the CS kids.

Moravian College: How does it feel to work directly with someone who was employed in their field right out of school?

Megan: I think it makes me appreciate Moravian’s smaller population. I feel like if I went to a bigger school I would never be here having a Co-Op in the fall of my junior year and internships over the summer. The career prep course we take as part of the Co-Op has been helpful with networking.

Moravian College: Balancing a full-time paid internship with classes during your last semester of college will undoubtedly be a challenge. Myles, any last words for them?

Myles: I did the same thing when I was at Moravian, and my advice would be that there will have to be trade-offs. Enjoy the time you have at Moravian and take time for yourself. Take the opportunity you have at Merck to absorb something and apply it and learn how to be in a workplace. I felt really prepared coming out of school, and you will too.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Moravian College Magazine