Thinking Outside the Lab: LEADERs Alum Paves the Way for Novel Networked Clinical Documents at Merck and the FDA

Without Northeastern’s Leadership Education Advancing Discovery through Embedded Research (LEADERs) program, for Syed Arefinul Haque, PhD ’22, things would look very different. He would probably still be searching for a job in academia, he says.  

Instead though, through one of the PhD Network’s experiential learning initiatives, in 2021 Haque was placed at pharmaceutical giant Merck. Building a reputation for himself, he became the brains behind Merck’s networked clinical documents, which connects data across scads of clinical studies to inform protocol and drug design and reuse.   

“I got this opportunity to explore how it feels working in the industry and I loved it, so I switched my career track,” he says.  

Haque went on to score a fellowship with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and in another first, for the FDA he prototyped an AI-enabled clinical notes database identifying adverse effects of opioid drugs to enhance opioid drug safety in a hospital setting.  

“LEADERs became an umbrella for me to get exposed to industry as an academic, which didn’t require any visa authorization” adds Haque, who came to the U.S. from the best business school in Bangladesh.  

When he entered Northeastern’s LEADERs program in 2015 in the young and growing field of network scien

ce he got busy researching how things are connected—from the spread of disease via air travel between cities, to diversity and gender equity (the topic of his thesis). But when it was time to think about landing a job, with so few tenure track positions, he knew he had to dip his toe in industry. LEADERs taught him how to swim.  

“For students like me in a new discipline or one like social sciences where there is less job availability, LEADERs helps you find your way,” says Haque, now a research scientist at Independence Blue Cross. “[Director] Jerry Melnick taught me how to present my profile and resume to industry people,” he says. “I took the course and he guided me to potential positions.” Rather than throwing his resume at any old co-op available, he was coached and matched based on his transferable skill set.  

LEADERs has worked with 260 students since its launch four years ago by the PhD Network and the Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership. The program selects fellows who align with the specific needs of companies, while doctoral students are supported through the fellowship application process and placed in a specialized role with industry partners to earn a LEADERs certificate. Each receives additional guidance from a faculty advisor (for Haque it was Assistant Professor Laura Nelson, now at University of British Columbia, and David Lazer, distinguished Northeastern professor of political science and computer science). But a fellowship isn’t the only road through LEADERs. Starting with the foundational course, “Leading Self and Others,” the PhD Network helps prepare students to enter the workforce as impactful researchers.  

Ultimately, whether taking the class or completing the fellowship for the certificate, LEADERs opens doors for doctoral candidates like Haque to thrive in industry—often where they never expected to—and to make their mark on the world.  

“The LEADERs course helped me gain emotional intelligence, project management skills, and a solid understanding of how to budget my time and resources,” says Haque. “It connected me to a brilliant group of researchers, taught me how to solve business problems, and gave me the the confidence to open a new chapter in industry.” 

Northeastern’s PhD Network was designed in the first place to bring distinction to PhD education through experiential learning, enhancing the educational experience and forming a community across the global university system to prepare doctoral students for the future.  

To learn more about the PhD Network and its experiential programming and initiatives, including LEADERs, visit our website and follow us on LinkedIn. Sign up for Leading Self and Others today!  – Anna Fiorentino