Inquisitive nature serves December graduate well as he prepares to launch career in biotechnology

Christopher Wilke

Christopher Wilke is well prepared to start his career after the experiences he gained working in the lab of Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor James Bashkin during his final two years at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Christopher Wilke spent his first week as a college graduate hiking in the mountains near Colorado Springs with a couple of his fraternity brothers.

It was a welcome chance to relax after all the work he put in the past 4½ years, both in the classroom and in the lab, while earning a degree in biochemistry and biotechnology from the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

But with the holidays over and the New Year here, Wilke is getting set to climb onto the next stage in his life.

“I think it still hasn’t totally hit yet,” Wilke said. “But it feels great to reflect on my accomplishments at UMSL and continue my advancement in the biotechnology field.”

That starts with applying for contract positions at pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies with offices in the St. Louis region, such as Pfizer or MilliporeSigma. Wilke wants an opportunity he can have for a year or two before returning to graduate school. He hopes to build up a little savings and get a clearer picture of the area in which he’d like to work before making a five- or six-year commitment to a PhD program.

“Also, industry experience can really help when applying to PhD programs as opposed to directly out of bachelor’s program,” Wilke said. “It will enhance my experience and allow me to take a specific direction.”

Wilke already had the privilege of working as an intern in the life science research department for MilliporeSigma last summer. He engaged in mammalian cell culture and gene editing, then generated assays to determine the effects of the modifications. His goal was to develop a cell line that could be used for diagnostic purposes.

Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor James Bashkin, for whom Wilke served as a research assistant in his final two years at UMSL, doesn’t think his former student will have much difficulty finding his next opportunity in St. Louis’ thriving life sciences market.

“He’s worked on my organic chemistry and cell culture and molecular biology teams,” Bashkin said. “The organic chemistry setting involved a lot of analytical chemistry, and analytical chemistry is where a lot of the jobs are. So he’s highly qualified to apply for jobs in a wide range of areas. There are many opportunities for him, and I think he’s already lined up some interviews and is in a position to choose the opportunities that best fit his interests. Chris has a real aptitude for making equipment work and finishing experiments.”

Wilke didn’t know he’d feel so well prepared to enter the workforce when he started at UMSL in the fall of 2015.

At the time, he just wanted to stay close to home – and relatives who were dealing with health issues. While many of his friends from McCluer North High School were heading outside St. Louis, many to the University of Missouri–Columbia or Missouri University of Science and Technology, he opted for the university about 12 minutes away. The tuition was affordable and had his desired major.

At least, he thought biochemistry and biotechnology was his desired major.

“I didn’t really even know what that meant,” Wilke said.

He was always interested in science growing up, and his grandfather who used to drive him to school had to limit the number of textbooks he could take to read in between classes.

By high school, Wilke was thinking he might like to pursue engineering, but his family members’ illnesses made him think instead about something in the biological field. He was sure he didn’t want to be a doctor, but he thought biochemistry and biotechnology might give him a chance to have an impact on health “behind the scenes.”

“As I kept going, it kept sparking my interest more and more,” Wilke said of his early coursework at UMSL. “It always seemed like there was an infinite amount of knowledge to learn, and that really drove me to reach out to professors and try to learn as much as I possibly could.”

Early in Wilke’s time at UMSL, he got a job in the chemistry stock room that had him making regular deliveries to research labs, and he got a look at some sophisticated and expensive equipment in use. He got in the habit of asking the people he’d meet about the projects they were working on.

Over time, he realized he was gaining an understanding of the things they were saying, which made him think he might be able to work in that space, too.

“I didn’t know if I would like it before I got into the lab, but once I got there, it just clicked instantly,” Wilke said. “It felt like home.”

Wilke read about some of the research being done by several professors, and Bashkin’s work testing the effectiveness of potential antiviral drugs related to the human papillomavirus piqued his interest. So he reached out to Bashkin during his sophomore year to see if he could join the lab.

The professor was receptive to the idea but told Wilke he needed a few more courses before he could adequately grasp the concepts he’d need. So Wilke decided to cram two semesters of organic chemistry and a lab into one summer so he’d be ready to work in the fall of his junior year.

“It was a bad idea,” he said. “But it was worth it. It really immersed me in the program.”

Bashkin is grateful for the number of talented graduate and undergraduate students he’s had working for him during his time at UMSL, but Wilke stood out alongside the best of them during the past two years.

“During Chris’ time, he’s been the most dedicated undergraduate student of the team in terms of spending time in the lab and making progress in the lab,” Bashkin said. “He’s made a lot of sacrifices to do that, so I’m very appreciative of his efforts, and I have the highest opinion of him as a researcher.”

Wilke, meanwhile, credits the opportunities and training he received from Bashkin for helping him land last summer’s internship.

“Having over a year in a lab put me above a lot of the other people,” he said. “It was invaluable.”

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