An unexpected career path provides a breath of fresh air

Ask yourself this question: did your career journey follow the exact roadmap you’d designed for it? If you said yes, that’s great for you, but it’s not the case for most of us.

University of Toronto student Melissa Renn took part in the Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) when she was looking for an internship to complete her Master’s in Engineering. She had her eyes set on the medical device industry and Picomole piqued her interest.

“I was initially attracted to Picomole because of the various potentials of their technology,” Melissa explains. “Although, I did not have practical experience developing biomedical products from prototype to commercial release, my courses at the University of Toronto focused just on that, i.e., developing proper requirements, design control, human factors, regulatory requirements.”

Picomole is a medical device company focused on using infrared spectroscopy to conduct breath screening for lung cancer. Picomole’s own origin story is interesting in that it began in Edmonton in 2005 as a spin out from the University of Alberta and relocated across the country in 2011 to its current home in Moncton.

And like Picomole’s story of starting in one place and moving to another, Melissa was hired to investigate some of the properties of Picomole’s thermal desorption tubes and develop a strategy for optimal cleaning and storage. If you’re confused, don’t worry, because here ‘s where the story turns.

Organizations weren’t the only ones to pivot

“Due to COVID-19, Melissa was not able to work in the lab until near the end of her internship,” says Chris Purves, Chief Technology Officer at Picomole. “With the extra time available from not running tests in the lab, Melissa contributed to the implementation of our quality management system by collaborating on procedures and policies.”

Sensing an opportunity to contribute in other areas of the company that interested her, Melissa took the bull by the horns. She offered to work quality assurance. Being multi-dimensional makes an employee, especially a new hire, an asset.

“In a small company, it’s essential to have employees that see a problem and take initiative to solve it,” says Chris. (It was then that) I knew Melissa had the right attitude to transition to a full-time employee.”

And really, that’s one of the benefits of SWPP. The program introduces students who are about to enter the talent pool to employers who are looking to add brainpower to their staff. For companies like Picomole, it’s essential not to swing and miss too often when onboarding employees. Having been introduced to Melissa through SWPP and having her learn the business while still in school gave the company some level of assurance that she was the right fit.

“SWPP has been very impactful on my career,” explains Melissa. “It has given me the opportunity to complete my internship at Picomole which has led directly to a full-time job here. Picomole has been a place for me to learn and grow, try new things, and discover new interests.”

Make your mark

Since joining Picomole, Melissa has been instrumental in the implementation of a quality management system that enabled the company to seek ISO 13485 certification and  to implement effective design controls, greatly improving the quality of its product design. Her Master’s degree in biomedical engineering has filled a gap in Picomole’s knowledge  base and has made her a de facto subject matter expert within the company. All of this from a student brought in, initially, to work on the characterization of thermal desorption tubes.

“To be successful in bringing non-invasive early detection to lung cancer and other diseases, Picomole needs innovative and creative people that take initiative while working towards a common vision,” says Chris. “Melissa is one of those people.”

Picomole and Melissa are a great example of how SWPP is a mutually beneficial experience for employer and participant. Students like Melissa bring fresh perspectives to an organization while gaining invaluable expertise and skills that they can employ in their future careers. Particularly, for start-up companies, interns are not limited to one department but can develop a varied body of work.

“We have hired Melissa and one other SWPP intern for permanent positions,” says Chris. “We consider the internship an ideal way to fill our pipeline for future hiring needs.

Good things come from unexpected sources

Melissa’s story is not uncommon. Many of us had a plan to work in one industry or job function only for life to take us in a different direction. Programs like SWPP provide students with the opportunity to take those forks in the road sooner than expected.

The lesson here is that organizations that give talent the opportunity to discover their strengths and trust them to execute will reap the benefits for a long time.

SWPP is open and now accepting new applications. Visit to apply and help your organization find its next “de facto subject matter expert” in a place you may not have expected to look.


Funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Student Work Placement Program.