Limitless Possibilities Discovered During Summer Research

Scientific research involves a systematic investigation of scientific theories and hypotheses. At Augustana University, we pride ourselves in providing our students with the resources to experience the world of research with a wide range of opportunities — both locally and nationally, even as undergraduates.

Three of our students were able to gain firsthand knowledge about medicine and marine ecology this past summer. Samantha Vaverka ‘19, Erica Bien ‘20, and Madigan Moore ‘20, were able to take their talents east to Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Rhode Island School of Oceanography, respectively, and we couldn’t be prouder of their achievements.

Research is an elemental part of how we teach science, and the summer opportunities are reflections of the curriculum we teach in the academic year,” said Dr. Mark Larson, associate professor and chair, Biology Department. He added, “We are particularly proud of how many students have opportunities to do paid research here at Augustana, and even prouder that they can leverage this into the opportunities that Erica, Madigan and Samantha had.”

We asked these students to talk about their research, their experiences and how AU has prepared them to tackle the competitive world after graduation. Here’s what they had to say: 

Samantha Vaverka

Q: Tell me about your work with marine organisms.

A:  I studied phytoplankton, which floats through all oceans, specifically studying the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia (genus of diatom). Pseudo-nitzschia produces a toxin called domoic acid, which can be a huge problem as it bioaccumulates in shellfish and can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans upon consumption. We were trying to determine what’s causing the production of this toxin, specifically looking at bacterial involvement in toxin production. (Pseudo-nitzschia are known to have close bacterial associations, some of which can perpetuate or even potentially cause toxin production).

Q: What are your plans post-graduation?

A: I plan to take a year off to do research abroad or work in a clinical setting. After that, I would like to pursue an MD/PhD program.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish after your internship/research is over?

A:  This is part of a larger Rhode Island Sea Grant project. Research continues for a year trying to figure out the species of Pseudo-nitzschia involved and the bacteria associated with them.

Q: What got you so interested in marine biology?

A: I am interested in tropical ecology and medicinal plants. Growing up, I wanted to do a lot of things, but my long-term plan is to complete a MD/PhD program. I didn’t know a lot about the marine science program; everything was new. Growing up in the Midwest, it’s hard to know much about phytoplankton without actually getting involved and going out to one of the coasts.

Q: Science remains a male-dominated field. Less than a quarter of researchers who publish papers in the physical sciences are women, according to an article in The Economist. What can be done, in your opinion, to make sure more women and girls get involved in STEM and have a career in science?

A: There are some things you can do, but not a lot. One thing that’s not said enough is how to get involved. They tell you you should, but they don’t tell you how. I didn’t particularly enjoy science in high school and that could be a deterrent for some. What can be done is have more visibility for women in science. Expose more girls early on in schools by having female scientists speak to them. I did a project and presented to a high school class and the feedback received was very positive.

Q: What are you most grateful for?

A: I think the thing I am most grateful for while at Augie is the support of all of the professors as I explore different areas that I am interested in. My biology advisor, Dr. Baye, has always been so great about making sure I’m taking the classes I’m interested in and exploring every possible option so that I never feel like I’m being pushed in a direction I don’t want to go. I’ve gotten that same support with many other professors too, they really encourage me to not limit myself at such a young age.

Erica Bien   

Erica Bien

Q: Tell me about your work at Harvard.

A: It was the Harvard Summer Research program in kidney medicine. It was an 8-week research program. Each of the participants were spread out across one of the four Harvard-affiliated hospitals– I was at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. I was in Dr. Mark Zeidel’s lab which focuses on bladder dysfunction. My project focused on β1-integrin in the smooth muscle of the bladder. Mechanical stresses activate integrins, leading to the assembly of multi-protein complexes called focal adhesions (FAs) that connect extracellular matrix components to the acting cytoskeleton. As a transmembrane protein, integrin facilitates bidirectional signal transduction across the plasma membrane necessary for a variety of cell activities. Bladder dysfunctions, including overactivity and incontinence, are thought to arise from abnormal muscle contractility or mechanosensitive neural signaling. To study mechanotransduction in the bladder smooth muscle, we knocked out β1-integrin using a conditional, tissue specific Cre/lox system in mice. These investigations will provide insights into mechanisms regulating BSM contraction and may reveal new targets for therapeutic intervention in bladder dysfunction. It was a research-focused program where I got to shadow a nephrologist, had several clinical experiences, and attended lectures about kidney functions/diseases. I also went out into a Haitian community in Dorchester and performed a free health screening to assess kidney function. At the end, the community received a physician consultation to refer them to a PCP for further analysis. I was able to tour a dialysis facility and had a presentation with all the other schools.

Q: Is there anything you know now about the industry that you didn’t know prior to going to Harvard?

A: I didn’t have a lot of experience with nephrology and kidney medicine. I didn’t know much about the prevalence of kidney disease, the different types of kidney dysfunction, the physiology. That sparked my interest and I’m definitely keeping nephrology in the mix. Because of this experience, I have a new-found passion in research. I wasn’t expecting this going into college, but I do hope to incorporate research in my career as a physician. In a broader sense, I benefited from my mentor in the lab, speakers from Harvard and seeing other hospitals. Your career is not a straight line. Many doctors have a Master of Science in public health. It’s not about following that line/path you had in your head, but more about following your passion and seeing where that takes you.

Q: What are you most grateful for while at Augustana?

A: I am most grateful for the ability to pursue the career I want and have a community of students and professors that are willing and able to support and motivate me on the journey. 

Q: What attracted you to Augustana?

A: I was looking for a smaller, liberal arts school with a strong biology department. The fact that we have two major hospitals here made it attractive too because they offer great volunteer and clinical experiences. I also like that classes are small – I think my biggest class had 70 students (general biology), but they usually range between 20-30 students. I also like that you get to know your professors well, which is helpful when it comes to questions and getting letters of recommendation. Drs. Olsen-Manning (whom I did research with) and Matzner helped me fill out applications and recommendations. At Augie, people really care and you’re more than just a number to them. They help you find your passion.

Q: What are your plans post-graduation?

A: I want to take a gap year. I’m still not sure about what I’ll be doing, but would like to study abroad. I’d also like to do more clinical research, in the states or abroad. Eventually, I’d like to attend medical school. I’m looking into a Rhodes Scholarship, a Gates or Marshall Scholarship or going to Cambridge and doing a Master’s program in England. I would love to go to a Spanish speaking country and use some of my Spanish and do some service work in a Central American country

Madigan Moore

Q: Tell me about your work at Mass Gen.

A: It was a medical research internship under the direction of Dr. Eric Klawiter, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital(MGH) and an Augustana alumnus. He is also a specialist on Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The clinical trials Dr. Klawiter conducts, with the help of his clinical research coordinators, allowed me to assist and observe the clinical trials in action. The research centered around good diagnostic methods and MS and MS treatments. Every summer, Dr. Klawiter takes an Augustana student to further the research. As an undergraduate in his lab, I was given a personal project – working with MRI scans on the relationship of the thalamus to MS. There’s a known relationship between the thalamus and MS and we wanted to further investigate that. My experience was very rich and varied. I got to shadow Dr. Klawiter in clinic. I was honored to get to work with him. I also observed the other coordinators in his lab organizing clinical trials for drugs that treat MS. I got to closely observe the intersection of research and medicine. Being at Mass Gen was a great experience! I attended grand round lectures, listened to speakers at the Ether Dome and attended neurology pathology conferences, which were conducted through the neurology department every Friday to determine the pathology of the disease. I didn’t have a lot of neurology experience before, being just an undergrad, but delving into that area of medicine was very interesting to me. 

Q: Why did you choose this topic?

A: I’m pretty open at this point. I see myself working as a family physician, but also surgery (found it fascinating) and neurology. I still have a long way to go before I decide, but I found the field and cases to be very interesting. I could easily see myself doing that. I saw at Mass Gen how wide you can go with medicine. Dr. Klawiter is very specific with MS, which was interesting to see a clinic with such a sharp focus. Being at Mass Gen gave me a lot of new experiences. The biggest thing was the emotional capacity of the doctors I observed with their patients. Watching their bedside manner, talking and listening to them and how they were fierce advocates for their patients. The service component is huge for me. Seeing that in action was reassuring but also ‘wow!’ I was very impressed by that. Also, the science and the way they assessed their patients. The humanity of it all is what impressed me the most.

Q: Is this what you wanted to be when you grew up?

A: I started getting interested in medicine in high school. You don’t always have direction when you’re that young, but I’ve always loved learning and had many influential (science) teachers. I also liked science, was interested in understanding how the body works and the biology of it. It’s always fascinated me. I also had a family physician that was influential in my life. I knew I wanted to enter a field where I could serve others and this is a field where both medicine and service to others intersect. I love challenges and this is a challenging road.

Q: What are your plans post-graduation?

A: After graduation, I’ll be going straight to med school. I’ll be taking the MCATs this year and plan on applying with the goal of attending med school after I graduate from Augustana. I was thinking maybe USD Sanford School of Medicine. They’re known for the service of the Midwest. I’d like to give back to my home state, but I loved Boston, too. I was impressed by the schools there. I’m definitely keeping my options open. We’ll see where it all takes me.

Q: What do you want people to know about Augustana? Why should they pursue an education here?

A: Don’t limit yourself or your possibilities. You always hear ‘believe in yourself,’ but it’s hard to rise to the challenge without having the right environment. Being in an environment that both challenges and supports you at the same time allows you to push your limits. They place the responsibility on you to rise to the challenge, but the support is great. Augie is a place that lets you grow and achieve crazy, cool dreams that seem far beyond your reach, it’s a great place to do that. Find your purpose and apply that purpose to the service of others.

Q: Describe your AU experience.

A: It has been a growing experience for me. Augustana has challenged me academically and as a person to grow and figure out that you have gifts and that you have something to offer the world. It’s your job to cultivate those gifts and challenge yourself to know that when you graduate, you can go out and fulfill your vocation. I think it’s a beautiful theme. I’ve also learned that failure isn’t final – it’s a life skill to be able to bounce back and move forward because I have a job to do.

Q: What are you most grateful for while at Augustana?

A: I am most grateful for the grace that I have received during my time at Augustana. I am a person who loves challenges, and takes great satisfaction in overcoming challenges in pursuit of an ultimate goal. However, I have also learned that with great challenges come failures, setbacks and frustrations. Society often labels these difficulties as roadblocks or stopping points. However, at Augustana, failure is an opportunity for growth. My professors, peers and the Augustana faculty have all served me with grace when I seem to be at a low point. It is through this support that I’m able to learn and then adapt to meet the challenge ahead. Thus, a challenge is defeated and turned into a learning opportunity; a new skill. This cycle is catalyzed by the support of the strong network within this community. These are the gracious people for which I am truly grateful.