St. Olaf College | News

As part of new project, Mayo Scholars examine Millennials

St. Olaf Associate Director of Entrepreneurship Roberto Zayas, right, talks with students and Mayo Clinic staff members about a summer project that used a philosophy of problem solving called “design thinking” to examine Millennials.

The Mayo Clinic has a seemingly simple question: what makes Millennials tick?

A team of four St. Olaf College students — themselves Millennials, or the generation of young people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — have spent the summer outlining the answer as part of the Mayo Innovation Scholars Program.

The program typically engages science and economics majors at select Minnesota private colleges in evaluating the commercial potential for inventions and discoveries by Mayo Clinic physicians and researchers.

But this summer, the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation asked one of the three groups of St. Olaf students participating in the program to study Millennials using a philosophy of problem solving called “design thinking.”

“Design thinking means modifying people’s behavior by understanding what makes them tick,” says St. Olaf Associate Director of Entrepreneurship Roberto Zayas. “The Center for Innovation is interested in figuring out how Mayo Clinic can develop a meaningful relationship with college-age students because they want to improve the overall well-being of this age group and form lifelong connections with them.”

This means that much of the group’s research was based on behavioral analysis, a far cry from the traditional laboratory work generally associated with medical investigation.

“Our project is unique in that it is the first one working with the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation,” says Eric Lander ’14. “We have been researching what aspirations, fears, and values drive college students’ decision making.”

In a presentation to members of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, Eric Lander ’14 explains what his team learned while researching Millennials this summer.

Learning more about Millennials
The group had to use creative methods of research in order to get a true glimpse into the minds of their fellow college students. Their approaches ranged from hour-long, in-depth conversations with their peers to thought-provoking activities around campus. One day the group carried around a whiteboard and asked students to draw how they view themselves at St. Olaf.

“We observed not only their response, but how they responded to the prompt as well,” says Lander. “Through games such as these, we gained invaluable insight and innumerable new questions for further research.”

They aren’t the only researchers with questions about Millennials. Reams of newsprint have been devoted to why this generation does what it does, including in-depth pieces like the recent TIME magazine cover story titled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.”

This growing interest in the generation has certainly caught the attention of Mayo Clinic, and — after this summer — their team of researchers as well.

Interdisciplinary teamwork
While their peers are busy examining the Millennials, the other two groups of Mayo Innovation Scholars at St. Olaf are delving into their own unique projects. One group is researching a prospective treatment for epilepsy and the other a product developed by a physician at the clinic.

The complexity and variation involved in each of the projects requires a level of collaboration that is unique to the Mayo Innovation Scholars Program.

“We frequently think of the health industry on a technical science level,” says Zayas. “But it’s important that people know a lot about economic markets, how to get a product approved, knowledge about different regulatory agencies, and the laws surrounding these procedures.”

The students selected for the program are handpicked for their varying areas of expertise, which requires a great deal of trust and cooperation within each group.

“I chose this program due to its interdisciplinary nature,” says Nilakshi Biswas ’15, who was working on researching the physician’s product. “This experience makes you realize what teamwork in an interdisciplinary setting really means.”

Her teammate Abdi Musse ’15 agrees. “Being able to depend on others and also having others depend on you is a skill that goes a long way in the workforce,” he says. “I enjoyed learning how others in different disciplines think and problem solve. Best of all, I enjoyed seeing how different ideas can come together to create a masterpiece.”

Not your average classwork
Having a variety of backgrounds to work with is crucial to a project like the Mayo Innovation Scholars Program, where the outcome is generally uncertain and expectations are high.

“I’ve enjoyed the fact that we’re working on something real that will actually go on to improve patient care and save lives,” says Ryan Peterson ’14. “It was a powerful moment when I realized this for the first time.”

The valuable end result of this experience is evidenced by the amount of work the students must accomplish within an eight-week timeframe. “This isn’t a typical 9-5 job,” says Peterson. “There is a set amount of work that needs to be done, and if that can’t be done in a normal 9-5 shift, then you are working weekends and evenings.”

This is often complicated by the fact that the students are conducting research that has not been done before, and frequently are unsure of the next step. “The most challenging aspect is being able to figure out how to recover when you’ve hit a wall,” says Musse. “But learning to find ways and alternative methods to solve problems is one of the best things this program offers.”

The program allows students the opportunity to test-drive their academic knowledge in a much more fluid setting. “It’s been a great ‘real world’ program and has opened my mind beyond the confines of my numerous chemistry and biology classes,” says Torbjorn Morkeberg ’15, who is researching epilepsy treatments.

A two-way street
As the program wraps up, the students are busy presenting what they have discovered at the Mayo Clinic. But they aren’t the only ones who have been learning this summer.

“It’s a win-win because I get to mentor and share my experiences while also learning something new,” says Zayas. “That’s not usually the case when you’re in a classroom setting. The Mayo Innovation Scholars Program is a two-way street because we are all learning as we go.”