Where Are They Now? Catching Up with Alumni of Our RARE Scholars Program

April 2, 2024

Scott is a mechanical engineer doing design and prototyping of medical devices for a well-known scientific supplier and service provider. Olivia is a physician pursuing a career in neurology and Josh works in the histology department of a large medical clinic. Blaide is at a life-sciences consultancy after having completed his Ph.D., while Carson is finishing his undergraduate studies and making connections for a career in the sports industry.

While each of these individuals has chosen a different career path, what all five share in common is that they are alumni of BioMarin’s RARE Scholars program. Founded in 2018 to provide financial support to U.S. college students living with a rare genetic condition – now including achondroplasia, Batten disease, hemophilia A, mucopolysaccharidosis (MPS) and phenylketonuria (PKU) – RARE Scholars has awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships to 22 students.

As the application window for the 2024-25 program comes to a close April 5, we caught up with Scott, Carson, Olivia, Josh and Blaide to learn more about what they’re up to and ask them how the RARE Scholars program has helped them pursue their career goals.

Scott Cavanagh Brings Firsthand Experience to Designing Medical Devices

Scott completed his studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington in 2022. He’s now putting his degree to use as a mechanical engineer doing early prototyping and product design at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Scott says living with a form of mucopolysaccharidosis known as Morquio A (MPS IVA) and spending significant time in hospitals over the years inspired him to design more patient-friendly medical devices.

“Growing up, I was able to see firsthand where medical devices could be improved on the patient end,” he says. “With this unique background, I hope to be able to innovate upon medical devices.”

RARE Scholars program alum Scott Cavanagh in graduation cap and gown

Scott spends his free time doing woodwork, having dinner with friends and walking his dog. He credits the RARE Scholars program with helping him find his footing in college and encouraging him to pursue his career track.

“The RARE Scholars scholarship gave me the reassurance that I belonged at such a large university,” says Scott. “The support it gave me allowed me to confidently pursue a career in medical technologies, where I hope to give back to the rare disease community.”

Carson Cook Makes Strides Toward Career in Sports

Carson – the only four-time recipient of a RARE Scholars award – is on the verge of finishing his senior year at San Diego State University, where he has been studying journalism with minors in history and marketing.

Outside of the classroom, the highlight of his college journey has been volunteering with the SDSU men’s basketball program, helping with the team’s social media and photography. He’s had the opportunity to accompany the team on its March Madness runs each of the past two seasons.

“Being part of a team like that – and being part of the school in a way that most people aren’t – is amazing,” says Carson, who is living with another form of mucopolysaccharidosis known as Hurler-Scheie (MPS I).

RARE Scholars program alum Carson Cook with an NCAA basketball trophy

As he looks to the future, Carson hopes to stay in the industry and find a college sports program to call home, either as a full-time employee or a graduate assistant.

“The scholarships have helped me so much in just being able to focus on my studies and pursue my dream of working in the sports industry,” says Carson. “By working in sports, I want to help show other people that it is possible to do what you love, no matter your size, your abilities. If you really put your mind to it, you can do it.”

Olivia Cummings Turns Interest in Life Sciences into Career in Neurology

Olivia earned a scholarship during her first year of medical school at Indiana University School of Medicine. She has since gone on to receive an M.D. and is currently about halfway through a four-year neurology residency, also at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

“Certainly having PKU inspired my initial interest in life sciences,” Olivia says. “Neurology is an incredible field of localizing pathology. I have the opportunity to have a significant impact on people’s lives and walk alongside folks during heartbreaking moments.”

RARE Scholars program alum Olivia Cummings in graduation cap and gown

Olivia is currently planning a wedding and remains active in the PKU community, participating in research when she can and attending conferences for the camaraderie and opportunity to try new low-protein foods. She recalls how receiving a RARE Scholars award made her feel more connected to her community as well.

“I feel very lucky and honored to have been one of the first few folks awarded this scholarship,” she says. “I see this award as a reflection not just of my success, but of the accumulated good will and effort that has been poured into me – from my parents to my teachers, from my PKU physician to the dietitians, and to all of the scientists who have contributed to the diagnosis and treatment standard of care for PKU.”

Josh Eckerman Embarks on Exciting and Challenging Career in Histology

Josh, a two-time scholarship recipient who is living with PKU, finished his college career a semester early last December, when he graduated with a B.S. in biology. He’s now working in the histology department in a lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he helps process human tissue samples. He began there as an intern before accepting a full-time role, and he plans to complete Mayo’s histotechnology program in 2025.

“I always knew I wanted to work in the medical field in some capacity, and the internship exposed me to several areas of indirect patient care that really helped further direct my interests,” Josh says. “The laboratory setting has allowed me to work in an area of medicine that is exciting and challenging and enables me to help others.”

RARE Scholars program alum Josh Eckerman with his college diploma

Outside of the lab, Josh has enjoyed his move to Rochester and has been finding new areas to hike and explore around the city. He notes that the support of BioMarin and others in the PKU community has been meaningful in his education and early professional development.

“It was just awesome to know that there were people out there who cared about people with PKU and were taking steps to help us in a variety of different ways,” he says.

Blaide Woodburn Finds Purpose in Helping Evaluate Impact of Genetic Medicines

Blaide twice received support from the RARE Scholars program while working to complete a Ph.D. in virology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now works as a Senior Life Science specialist at Boston-based L.E.K. Consulting, where he helps biopharma and biotech companies solve complex problems that lie at the interface of science and business.

His work includes supporting companies in evaluating the potential impact of genetic medicines for people living with rare conditions.

“My interest in science started as a desire to understand what was going on in my body and developed into a fascination with human biochemistry, genetics and then life sciences in general,” says Blaide, who is living with PKU. “My work is intellectually stimulating, but really the opportunity to help drive impact within patient communities is what resonates with me.”

RARE Scholars alum Blaide Woodburn in a lab coat

Outside of work, Blaide prioritizes health and fitness and is planning a 2025 wedding with his fiancé. He notes a couple important roles the RARE Scholars program played in his life.

“RARE Scholars helped limit my student loan debt so I could pursue an advanced degree more easily, but it was even more meaningful just to be recognized by a company that has played such a crucial role for the PKU community,” he says.

Learn more about the RARE Scholars program. Applications for the 2024-25 program are due April 5, 2024.

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