Alumni facilitate internships, opening doors for UW students

The essence of the Wisconsin Idea is that the University of Wisconsin–Madison should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom, throughout the state, across the nation, and around the world.

UW‐Madison seniors Nicolas Bunker and Nicolette Johnson with a group of interns at AbbVie in Puerto Rico.

UW‐Madison seniors Nicolas Bunker and Nicolette Johnson with a group of interns at AbbVie in Puerto Rico.

Last summer, two UW–Madison seniors—Nicolette Johnson, majoring in industrial engineering, and Nicolas Bunker, majoring in chemical engineering—embodied the university’s guiding principle through their participation in internships at AbbVie, a global, research-based biopharmaceutical company, working at the company’s Barceloneta facilities in Puerto Rico.

This opportunity was made possible, in part, by UW–Madison alumni working at AbbVie, who value the importance of giving back to their alma mater and saw this as an opportunity to improve students’ undergraduate experience and fill their company’s talent pipeline with globally capable students.

“As a leader of this organization, there is nothing more wonderful than when people go and work at one of my sites,” says Azita Saleki-Gerhardt, senior vice president and president of AbbVie Operations, and a member of the UW–Madison Division of International Studies Advisory Board.

Saleki-Gerhardt, who earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in pharmaceutics from UW–Madison, returned to campus last October, where she received a Citation of Merit award from the School of Pharmacy. She joined Abbott Labs, her present company’s predecessor organization, in 1993; it split into two companies in 2011.

Azita Saleki‐Gerhardt, second from the right, visits UW, international division staff.

Azita Saleki‐Gerhardt, second from the right, visits UW, international division staff.

AbbVie hosts approximately 300 interns every summer. Saleki-Gerhardt was integral in the collaboration that allows UW–Madison undergraduates to participate in internships with the pharmaceutical company.

These internships are offered through the International Internship Program (IIP), an office within the UW–Madison Division of International Studies. IIP identifies, develops, and promotes high-quality internships, both abroad and domestic with an international focus, that enable students to apply their academic skills to hands-on professional experiences.

Saleki-Gerhardt considers internships an important “trial run” for students who are preparing for an increasingly international professional world: “The reality is that the workforce needs to be very open and have international thinking … much of the workforce is a global workforce and as a result the students need to be able to use their skillset and training to work in very different environments.”

Both Bunker and Johnson say they not only developed a stronger international skillset through the internship, but also consider this professional experience as a way to make an impact:

“I was looking for an internship where I would be making a difference and helping someone in some way,” says Bunker, who worked as a Quality and Regulatory Intern at the biotechnology plant. One of the products he worked with was Humira, a prescription drug that treats rheumatoid arthritis. “I didn’t know too much about rheumatoid arthritis, but after speaking to people who have it, it is a crippling disease … It’s heartwarming knowing whatever you do that day is going to help make someone’s life easier.”

Similarly, Johnson, who worked as a New Product Introduction Project Manager intern, was inspired by the idea of having a job that would make a difference. This experience has helped shape how she sees her future career: “I want a patient-centered career and really helping people in the healthcare setting,” says Johnson. “I want [my job] to be challenging, I want it to be in Puerto Rico and it to be with AbbVie.”

Johnson was offered a position with AbbVie. She says this opportunity was made possible in large part by the close UW alumni involvement in setting up the internship program, along with advocating for future career opportunities within the company.

Nicolas Bunker and Nicolette Johnson meet Marilyn Frontz before leaving for their internships at AbbVie.

Nicolas Bunker and Nicolette Johnson meet Marilyn Frontz before leaving for their internships at AbbVie.

Before Johnson and Bunker departed for Puerto Rico, IIP hosted a gathering for them to meet Marilyn Frontz, who graduated from UW–Madison with a degree in Medical Microbiology and currently leads the AbbVie Quality Assurance team. Frontz, who has worked at Abbot Labs and AbbVie for a total of 27 years, is responsible for ensuring that all products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards of the global market.

She advised the students to “work hard and do the right thing, and opportunities will happen.” She also encouraged Bunker and Johnson to be demanding and vocal throughout their internships, and emphasized that it should be mutually beneficial to the company and their professional experience.

Upon meeting Frontz, Johnson recalled thinking, “This is me some day.”

Frontz paid a visit to Puerto Rico while the students were there and invited them to attend a presentation that she gave.

“She took the time to check in with us. She recognized that we were there,” says Johnson, who believes that an experience like hers should be required because it forces students out of their comfort zone and prepares them to navigate in a global environment. “[Marilyn] advocated for me to pursue an opportunity moving forward.”

Both students view their experiences as important for their career paths.

Bunker recently went to a career fair, where the AbbVie internship on his resume got him noticed. In addition to showing prospective employers that he is capable of working abroad in professional environments, he says he also has proven that to himself.

It is important to get out of the UW–Madison bubble and have international or cultural awareness,” says Bunker, who believes that engineering in particular is an industry with an increasingly global market, especially in Latin America.

Similarly, Johnson has seen this opportunity as vital to her professional track, largely because she feels that AbbVie was investing in her from the start. On her first day, she received an encouraging text: “I hope this is the beginning of your career.” She is delighted to report that it is.

— by Carly Stingl