University of Wisconsin - LaCrosse

06/25/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/25/2024 11:21

Students apply genetics research for diverse careers in research and healthcare

Posted 12:11 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Students apply genetics research for diverse careers in research and healthcare

UW-La Crosse student Sienna Miller started medical school three years ago in the West Indies, but returned to the States abruptly when the heat and humidity began to trigger health problems. At first doctors thought Miller had Leukemia, but it was later determined her flare ups were caused by a genetic disorder.

Miller's journey brought her to the fourth floor of Prairie Springs Science Center, where students gather in Associate Professor Anne Galbraith's lab to explore the latest in genetics research. On a Tuesday in June, Galbraith taught four students the same molecular technique: extracting RNA from cells - a fundamental skill used in genetics labs to investigate gene expression and function. While the steps were the same for each student, they will apply this lesson in different ways throughout their futures.

Sienna's story

As Miller's health improved with medication, a college advisor suggested she return to school to prove her readiness for the demands of medical school. She began a graduate program in biology at UWL in fall 2023. Lab time has helped her narrow her focus to becoming a medical geneticist to help patients with genetic disorders like her own. Her graduate thesis involves researching the expression of specific genes after yeast are treated with an antifungal drug derived from the sweet fern plant. These genes are crucial for managing Reactive Oxygen Species, which regulate biological functions. Her results can help with the discovery of viable, new antimicrobials.

In addition to preparing for her future, she enjoys collaborating with her advisor, Galbraith, who she describes as "clever, quick on her feet, and sassy."

"Dr. G has been incredibly supportive," says Miller. "If she could adopt me, I would go with her in a heartbeat."

Rachel's story

As an EMT and a nanny working to pay the full cost of her college tuition, Rachel Hohensee relishes the flexible hours in Galbraith's lab that allow her to squeeze in work hours between study breaks and work schedules.

"I'm trying to do a bit of everything in the summer," says the May graduate. "I get to pick my hours in the lab, so I come in after my 12-hour shifts."

Hohensee, a biology major on the pre-med track, is currently studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and aims to apply to medical school next June. As a first-generation college student, she received $3,000 in grants through WiscAMP to conduct undergraduate research with Galbraith starting in summer 2023.

The finances have been a boost and the mentorship in undergraduate research has given her important practice for medical school, she says. "Dr. G has been really awesome. As a first-generation student, I didn't know how to amp up my medical school application, and now I do."

Hohensee's resume is packed with genetics research, technical lab skills, and extensive volunteer work. "It's a lot of stress and balancing, but I think UWL has prepared me pretty well," she says. "One day, I'll be well-rounded for future patients, able to empathize and treat everyone, no matter their background."

Emjay's story

Emjay Hilliker is a self-described introvert. Yet she loves meeting new people through opportunities like volunteering at Mayo Clinic Health System, and, when the conversation gravitates to topics of interest like cancer research, she has no loss for words.

This dimension of her personality has helped her see that working with patients in a future career in oncology could be the perfect fit.

Working in Galbraith's lab through UWL Undergraduate Research & Creativity grants the past two summers has helped her see that while she loves genetics research, she also needs patient interaction. After her mother's battle with three different types of cancer, Hilliker shadowed oncologists, confirming her interest in oncology.

"I liked the patient interaction," she says. "I liked how much patients trusted their doctors and how doctors used research to back up their intuition and their knowledge."

In Galbraith's lab, Hilliker wants to learn more about the use of genetics in cancer research. "I think what she is doing with her research could really impact where cancer research is going nowadays," she says. "Knowing that scientists could be using these same methods 30 years from now to develop medicines that I will be giving to future patients is pretty cool."

Evelyn's story

Evelyn Norton, a senior biology major, is a Dean's Distinguished Fellow in UWL's College of Science & Health. The fellowship program has created collaborative research opportunities between undergraduates and faculty mentors for over 20 years, with many fellows continuing to successful careers in science, medicine, and technology.

For Norton, the lab work through her fellowship has confirmed she's on the right track pursuing scientific research. "After graduation, I'd like to do lab work and maybe continue on to get a master's for a future in scientific research," she says.

Norton's work involves extracting RNA to study gene expression in yeast treated with an antifungal drug. Like the other students, her work will help find effective antimicrobial drugs as resistance to current treatments increases. "I like that Dr. G explains not just what to do but why, helping us understand what's going on," she says.

Back in the U.S., Miller spent two years in and out of hospitals, severely ill and often bedridden. She had consultations with six different specialists and began using a cane, crutches and wheelchair to get around. She is now managing her condition with nine different medications.

Despite these challenges, Miller's determination to become a doctor has become stronger than ever.

"Being an intensive patient and seeing so many doctors exposed me to great doctors who were digging in to make me feel better and others who were dismissive," she says. "That really, strongly motivated me to be a stronger advocate for people because I know what they are going through, and I'm not going to blow them off."