How Research is Propelling Students Forward

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In the Iron Man films, scientist Tony Stark tinkers endlessly with mathematics and scientific concepts on virtual touch screens, before using an array of materials to build a futuristic suit that he dons as the Invincible Iron Man. Stark is a genius. Not only that, but he has a very deep pocketbook to fund his tinkering and research, seeming to always figure out his next problem by building a suit that can fly, shoot lasers, and even go toe-to-toe with the Incredible Hulk.

This is the sort of science research, though a little more fanciful, that former Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) graduate Alison Seemann thought of when she envisioned scientists in a laboratory.

“When Dr. (Heather) Sklenicka asked me to do research, I had only completed two semesters of college,” Seemann recalled. “At the time, I thought research was something only people with a Ph.D. had the opportunity to do. The only thing I knew about research was what the TV or news portrayed; I viewed researchers as scientists that made great discoveries and won Nobel prizes.”

Darren Anes Dy Quiangco demonstrates a chemical reaction.

Clearly, research isn’t just for the scientists found within Marvel comic book pages. Since 2008, Dr. Sklenicka has been recruiting a select handful of students each year to take part in her research class.

Sklenicka began diving into research during her undergraduate studies at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After graduating from Drake, Sklenicka went to the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities to complete a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry.

“I’m trained so that I could go to a pharmaceutical company and design drugs,” Sklenicka explained.

But she didn’t go that route.

Instead of designing drugs, Sklenicka came to RCTC in 2003 as an instructor. Five years later she had the inclination to bring research to the undergraduate level to help students “jumpstart the rest of their undergraduate career, and graduate career, maybe,” Sklenicka said.

While this isn’t research at the graduate level, it is still a bit unheard of in the two-year college realm.

“Part of the problem with doing it, is it’s not part of our core mission of the College,” Sklenicka explained. “Research is not our mission at all. Providing excellent education and providing excellent opportunities is. So, it kind of fits, but not really.”

It’s also not the most cost-effective proposition to provide research opportunities for students.

“We don’t spend a lot doing research, but I do get compensated for my time (helping students with) research,” Sklenicka added. The research class is only a one-credit course, meaning it doesn’t cost the student much.

Not all schools have support for research at the two-year level because of the costs involved. But seeing how it has affected students like Seemann should be an eye opener, and proof the cost is worth it for producing flourishing young researchers.

The four to five students in the research class work on individual projects, typically labs, like, heat transfer, for example, where they try to figure out the best coffee cups in the city. It is an inquiry based lab, having students figure out more on their own instead of simply following a set of instructions.

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Seemann created a DNA damage lab, a new one, for the General, Organic and Biological Chemistry II class.

“Working to prevent DNA damage with antioxidants and letting the students visualize that,” is how Sklenicka described her former student’s lab, while also pivoting to how joyful it is to watch the students complete their work.

“It’s really rewarding because I get to see them grow,” Sklenicka said of her students. “That transformation of them really becoming an expert of something is huge.”

Sklenicka uses the example of Seemann being a shy student, but then exploding with energy and passion when she talked to anyone at a conference who was willing to listen to her explain her work.

“It’s something you can’t get in a traditional classroom,” Sklenicka said.

From left: Lul Sharif, Dr. Heather Sklenicka, Darren Anes Dy Quiangco, Munira Alimire, and Nicholas Elliott.

Since leaving RCTC, Seemann has gone on to attend Winona State University to finish a biochemistry degree, and landed a job at Mayo Clinic in the molecular genetics lab.

“Basically, what we do is extract DNA from cancer tissue and blood, and do genetic testing on the DNA to determine any genetic mutations the patient might have so that doctors can better diagnose and treat the patients,” Seemann explained.

It’s a big change from nursing, Seemann’s first career goal.

“Dr. Sklenicka was so,” she emphasized the so, “excited to teach chemistry,” Seemann began. “Her passion for chemistry was contagious, and it rubbed off on me as her student. I took Chem 1117 with her, which was the only chemistry class I needed for a nursing major. I wasn’t planning on taking any more chemistry, but I enjoyed her class so much that I decided to take the next class with her, Chem 1118, just for fun. At the end of the second semester, she asked me if I would be interested in doing research for her.”

From there, Seeman’s goals started to evolve.

“As a result of this research opportunity, I decided to pursue a Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry,” she continued. “Research at RCTC also impacted my future research projects (a summer internship at Mayo Clinic and research at Winona State) because I already knew what to expect: how the process of research worked, how to document lab experiments, analyze data, logically think through problems, troubleshoot, write abstracts, and design posters.”

Nicholas Elliott heats up water for an experiment.

Her lab and research skills are used every day in her role at Mayo Clinic.

“Even though I work in a clinical lab where there is protocol for everything we perform due to government regulations, occasionally issues arise that are beyond what is written in the protocols,” Seemann explained. “When this occurs, my research instincts kick in and I ask myself, ‘What went wrong?’ as I start to critically analyze the issue. The troubleshooting skills I learned from research have helped me to excel and feel confident at my job. I’m so blessed to have had this opportunity to do research at RCTC.”

People like Seemann prove that research at RCTC is integral in student success. Fellow student Kristian Kennedy is still in her infancy of her college career, but shares a similar experience.

As a senior in high school, Kennedy got a taste of RCTC before heading to a four-year school and eventually coming back.

She’s currently at the University of Minnesota – Duluth studying for a biology degree. Her RCTC research class helped her slip right into her field of study and even get a job in a lab.

“We were able to do the same things had I been at a four-year in a lab,” Kennedy said. “It was really good, good to go to the conferences – I actually met someone who went to UMD, so I had a contact here. Putting it (the research class) on my resume was helpful.”

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Kennedy even held a job at Mayo Clinic over the summer and was able to land a job working with mice at the University of Minnesota – Duluth’s Klein Lab.

She hopes to become a genetic counselor after graduating, and really credits Sklenicka with boosting her academic career.

“She’s a really good teacher,” Kennedy began. “She’s a little strict,” the former student punctuates with a laugh. “She doesn’t tolerate a lot of BS. She expects you to know your stuff. If you don’t, she will tell you for sure. I learned a lot from her. She’s really good to have as a reference, too.”

As for the research program, it too seems to have a bright future, in spite of the challenges of keeping one running.

RCTC will actually host the 7th Annual Minnesota Conference of Undergraduate Scholarly and Creative Activity on March 23, 2018.

It will provide students a way to show their work on their home turf, and also aspire to be the next Tony Stark.

Even if their work isn’t about building a futuristic flying suit.

Meet Dr. Heather Sklenicka

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