Having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, Katie Piston never imagined trying to settle in the center of New York. After earning an undergraduate degree from Purdue University in biomedical engineering, Piston landed a job at Indiana-based medical technology company Zimmer Biomet. They recruited engineers with some business acumen, and the catch was that she had to be willing to relocate anywhere in the United States. It was 2010, and it wasn’t a good time for the job market, but the opportunity was with a big company, and that’s what brought her to Syracuse, New York.
Piston’s job meant she had to observe many surgeries as a sales consultant. This led her to work with veterans hospitals and, of course, Syracuse has strong ties to veterans. However, she didn’t know many post-9/11 veterans and had no tangible connection to the military community until she met her husband, Dan. Originally from Syracuse, Dan was a Navy lifeguard for six years and enrolled in Syracuse as an undergrad after completing his military service.
“I saw the transition out of the military was really tough, because you’re starting over,” she says. “The systems that exist at Syracuse University are so strong, and I don’t know if he would have received as much knowledge about how to handle his military transition elsewhere.”
Piston has always felt an attraction to earning a doctorate. and get his terminal degree in biomedical and chemical engineering. After learning how industry and the corporate world operate, she returned to academia for a deeper dive into problem solving and creative innovation.
“When you’re in a technical industry or an academic position, until you get the terminal degree, there’s still a lot to do,” she says. “I’m someone who doesn’t want to leave anything out.”
Piston first worked as a teaching assistant, then was selected from thousands of applicants to win a Tillman scholarship. Executive Director of Veterans Affairs and Military Affairs Ron Novack personally called her to offer his congratulations, and Piston still considers him one of his favorite people. She continues to stay engaged and involved in the Tillman Scholars community through annual leadership summits where she honed her public speaking skills by presenting some of her research to a wider audience and participating on the committee. selection process to assess new applicants.
“It was a big change because the stipend was helpful, really expanded my network of relationships, and when I looked for a job I had so much support from veterans and spouses across the country. “, she says. “It helped me mentally to have a sense of community and connection with other people trying to take risks, which is important because science can be really siloed.”
In addition to the transformational support from OVMA, Katie Piston also appreciates the ongoing support from the Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising for helping her identify and pursue academic awards. In 2019, she won a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, which funded the remaining three years of earning a Ph.D. The grant allowed her greater flexibility to direct her studies towards a new area of epigenetics, computational studies of how genes are expressed in different environmental factors.
“People often don’t realize how many resources are available to them, and it’s easy to think that you don’t belong or that someone else has done more or deserves more,” says- she. “There’s nothing wrong with asking all of these channels for help.”
Last year, she completed an internship at Baxter, a healthcare innovation company, which bridges her transferable skills in medical devices and research. Working as part of a cross-functional innovation team, Piston had the opportunity to work with different people from other parts of the business that she might not otherwise have met without internship experience.
The internship resulted in a full-time job offer in their medical affairs division. She will be able to combine the research, science and data analysis elements of her advanced studies with her original medical device work in a way that makes perfect sense now, even though there have been times when she was not not so sure.
“There were times before my defense when I really thought I wouldn’t go through with it,” she says. “It’s not an easy road to the end. It’s tedious and long, but I’m very proud to have come all the way.