Providing Hope a Reality

These MSUM alumni and faculty, although from varied backgrounds with different degrees and career fields, all conduct research across the world. Their association with MSUM has shaped their careers. They are researchers, exercising influence and making a big difference – successful alumni and faculty who are transforming our mental and physical wellness, changing our lives for the better and providing hope a reality.

Sheena Daignault ’11 (Medical Science)

Laboratory Manager, University of Queensland Diamantina Institute
Location: Brisbane St Lucia, QLD
Hometown: Greenbush, Minn.
 
Describe the type of research you do?
I belong to the Experimental Melanoma Research Group, led by Professor Nikolas Haass. Our main area of interest revolves around melanoma tumour heterogeneity and the implications this has on melanoma tumour invasion, survival and growth. Heterogeneity refers to cells within a tumour that have different behaviours causing them to grow rapidly, slowly, or not at all. The most dangerous cells are slow growing or not growing, as they are least likely to be killed by melanoma treatments. We can distinguish growing and arrested cells based on a fluorescent colour system called FUCCI, or fluorescent cell cycle indicator, allowing us to image melanoma in real time by following different phases of the cell cycle.
 
Why is the research you do important? What kind of impact can/could it have?
This research is important in finding proper therapy combinations in order to maximise tumour regression and abolish cancer cells before they mutate into something else or dormant cells start to grow again.
 
Is there a specific outcome you are hoping to achieve with your research?
The goal that we have as cancer biologists is to work together and collaborate with people internationally to make steps toward a common goal of targeting and killing cancer.
 
What’s your favorite part about your job?
I really enjoy what I am doing because it is challenging and I am continuously learning. The most fun for me comes in the data analysis. I like to learn new statistics and find different ways to plot data that is digestible to viewers. It's even more exciting when you find your results to be significant after several biological repeats!
 
Do you have any memorable experiences from your time at MSUM?
I can't say it's my favourite but it's definitely memorable. I can still taste the smell in my mouth from my first day of Human Anatomy laboratory. The intense smell of formaldehyde and the first view of a cut open dead body have stuck with me over the years. Little did I know that this would become my favourite class that semester. It was really interesting and exciting to learn from Bee Wisendon whom had a real passion for human biology.
 

Courtney Covey Lewis ’11 (Nursing)

Unit Shift Leader & Staff Nurse, Portland VA Health Care System
Location: Portland, Ore.
Hometown: Moorhead, Minn.

Describe the type of research you do?
The type of work I do could most appropriately be categorized as “evidence based practice” leading to quality improvement. Research has some very specific standards to qualify as “Research with a Capital R” (as any IRB could tell you) and while the work I do incorporates many elements of formal research, it doesn’t fit perfectly under that umbrella.
Last year, I piloted the addition of a standardized scale to measure patient agitation and behavior into our nursing documentation. This has given us a wealth of information about the unit’s needs as well as trends in our patient population. We are now using this data to support increased sensory care opportunities on the unit, such as introducing weighted blankets and a “calming room” to give patients tools with which to self-regulate emotion.

Why is the research you do important? What kind of impact can/could it have?
I believe that giving those with mental illness the tools to manage their condition as independently as possible is incredibly valuable. Being admitted to an acute psychiatric ward can be dehumanizing and disempowering; I want our patients to find healing and recovery instead. If I can assist in that by gathering information and introducing new practice, then I am serving my patients and my profession.

Is there a specific outcome you are hoping to achieve with your research?
I hope the interventions we are researching can provide new tools to patients and care providers to help manage a mental health crisis in a compassionate, recovery focused way.

What’s your favorite part about your job?
I love having the opportunity to both provide care and improve care for Veterans in a mental health crisis. My job gives me the chance to do hands on nursing, as well as dig into evidence based practice and research to look for the best way to provide that hands on care.

Do you have any memorable experiences from your time at MSUM?
My mom (Deborah Seaburg) has been MSUM faculty for many years, so I feel like I grew up on MSUM’s campus. When I was 7, I was sitting in on my mom’s Psychology of Women class! There have been many professors and support staff that have taken time to encourage and support me, which is why I chose MSUM to complete my nursing degree.
 

Gregory L. Lof ’79 (Speech Pathology and Audiology) and ’81 (M.S., Speech-Language Pathology)

Professor and Chair, Dept. of Communication Sciences and Disorders at
MGH Institute of Health Professions
Location: Boston, Mass.
Hometown: Nevis, Minn.

Describe the type of research you do?
I have written on science and pseudoscience, and how to distinguish what is useful and what is quackery. This has given me some notoriety, and I frequently am asked to speak about this topic. So far, I have spoken in 38 states and five countries on this topic, and have published articles, as well.

Why is the research you do important? What kind of impact can/could it have?
Professionals are constantly bombarded with new therapeutic procedures and techniques, usually through the internet and marketers, but many have of these have not undergone rigorous scrutiny about their efficacy. It is quite easy to fall prey to what appears to work and so practitioners continue to use these techniques. However, upon understanding how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, how to effectively evaluate the claims being made, and by using appropriate skepticism, then professionals can (and must) effectively make the correct decisions regarding clinical practice.

Is there a specific outcome you are hoping to achieve with your research?
I want people to become more skeptical of all claims being made about therapy and assessment procedures. We are constantly presented with more and more information, so it is sometimes difficult to know what is and what is not valid. I want people to have a questioning mind about all claims.

What’s your favorite part about your job?
I get to work with some amazing colleagues and graduate students. It is never boring to help students learn a profession, to guide faculty to become better teachers and researchers, to make sure my program remains strong and influential, to work on writing articles, to travel the country as an invited speaker, and to serve on national committees.

Do you have any memorable experiences from your time at MSUM?
I think about MSUM almost every day. I still am in touch with some of my friends for over 40 years that I met there. I will never forget Mick’s Office, Grier Hall, working as a student advisor, working at the desk at the now gone Neumaier Hall, feeling a wind chill that now seems unbelievable, and learning how to be a grown up. I never regret my decision to be a Dragon.
 

Elizabeth Nawrot (MSUM Faculty)

Professor of Psychology, MSUM, Director of MSUM Honors Program, 
Director of the MSUM Child Development Lab
Location: Moorhead, Minn.
Hometown: England

Describe the type of research you do?
I specialize in infant perception and cognition, particularly development of the visual system. In the Child Development Lab, my students and I work mostly with babies under 6 months-of-age as that is when most of the key visual processes are developing. I have worked in areas of color vision, depth perception, emotion discrimination, and music perception. Working with babies is challenging because you can't just ask them to read an eye chart or fill out a survey. We have to be creative and inventive — as well as very patient

Why is the research you do important? What kind of impact can/could it have?
By mapping out the normal time course for development of these visual functions, we hope to identify early visual deficits. For example, one of the most common visual disorders is esotropia or misalignment of the eyes (sometimes called “lazy eye”). This can lead to lifelong problems including poor visual acuity and deficits in depth perception. The visual processes involved in this are happening in the first months of life, so research like ours hopes to identify and possibly intervene in these conditions.

What’s your favorite part about your job?
One of the best things about my job is that I get to be a student as well as a teacher. I continue to take classes at MSUM, I have learned Spanish and I love to take classes in philosophy.

Do you have any memorable experiences from your time at MSUM?
The happy memories are too numerous to mention, but it’s the memory of students we lost that sticks with me the most. I remember Meredith Haugen, Ben Asher, and Shaun Rosario, and the valuable lessons each one taught me about patience, compassion, and understanding.
 

Alex Novak ’14 (Biochemistry & Biotechnology)

Post baccalaureate Trainee, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Location: Bethesda, Md.
Hometown: Oxford, Iowa

Describe the type of research you do?
Our lab is interested in the early stages of protein secretion. Wide ranges of human processes rely on protein secretion for proper health and development. For example, during proper tooth development, your body secretes specialized proteins that regulate the mineralization events of the tooth. Mineralization events like where the enamel (white, outside part of the tooth) should start to form, and how dense the dentin (region under the enamel) should be. If these specialized proteins were not secreted, then your teeth will likely be weaker and may chip or break easily, which in turn can affect your quality of life.

Why is the research you do important? What kind of impact can/could it have?
This topic can be easily expanded to almost every process in the body (hormones, nerve communication, digestion, immunity). In a broader sense, I believe the research we do is important because we gain a better understanding of how our bodies work. This in turn, gives us more opportunity to intervene with medicine (or not to) when something goes wrong.

Is there a specific outcome you are hoping to achieve with your research?
We want to better understand ourselves at the molecular level, which may help to explain certain diseases and disorders.

What’s your favorite part about your job?
My favorite part of the job is the environment. I get to work and learn from amazing scientists who (like me) want to better understand the world around them. The NIH research campus is a special place because of the resources available and its mission to improve health.

Do you have any memorable experiences from your time at MSUM?
My most memorable experiences at MSUM were the opportunities to continue playing basketball and to conduct undergraduate research. I think both experiences opened a lot of doors for me and helped me get to where I am today.
 

Tomi K. Sawyer ’76 (Chemistry)

Distinguished Scientist, Merck
Location: Boston, Mass.
Hometown: Greenbush, Minn.

Describe the type of research you do?
My research involves defining disease mechanisms at the molecular level, including defects with key “target” receptors, enzymes or other protein components that cause dysregulation of biological functions such as known in cancer, immune, endocrine, neurodegenerative and infectious diseases. I’ve had the great privilege to participate and/or lead drug discovery teams to tackle cancer, diabetes and immune (HIV) diseases. Such work has translated to several drug candidates that have gone into clinical trials (some ongoing currently) and two marketed drugs (i.e., Iclusig and Scenesse).

Why is the research you do important? What kind of impact can/could it have?
The most important impact of this research, whether my own or that of other biomedical scientists, is that of providing hope a reality –– for some a cure and others a chance to alleviate some of the suffering they live with.

Is there a specific outcome you are hoping to achieve with your research?
At this point in my career, I’m most keen to mentor other professional and aspiring young scientists within the realm of both pharma/biotech and academia. This is more than just scientific know-how, but the philosophy and virtues of science to do good works. For myself, this has been part of my faith journey and to bear witness to the glory of God. So, perhaps, if there is a specific outcome that is overarching from my work it is a spirituality that inspires what is truly good works in science, technology and medicine.

What’s your favorite part about your job?
My favorite part of my job is really to inspire others and support their scientific contributions as well as recognition of their good works and professional growth.

Do you have any memorable experiences from your time at MSUM?
I have literally hundreds of special memories of my time at MSUM, and such reflects upon both my days as an undergraduate and as an alumnus. My graduation in 1976 was especially significant as it was bittersweet to know that “this was it” but also to feel a sense of great achievement that was being shared with many others who received their diplomas that day. Some 33 years afterwards, in the fall of 2009, I received an invitation from MSUM President Barden to give the commencement speech to the graduates of the class of 2010, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to share some words of wisdom. It was definitely “a great day to be a Dragon!”
 

Adam Stocker (MSUM Faculty)

Assistant Professor, Biosciences Department, MSUM
Location: Moorhead, Minn.
Hometown: Orville, OH

Describe the type of research you do?
The neocortex, the largest and most iconic portion of the brain, possesses different areas that are responsible for processing different types of information. The most robust examples of these areas are the sensory areas. These areas are arranged in a similar pattern such that individual sensory areas are always in the same place across individuals. The primary sensory areas are also arranged in a similar pattern across all mammalian species (though the sizes of individual areas vary widely between different species). Looking to the visual system as an example, the visual areas are always located posterio-medially (i.e. at the back and center of the neocortex). Our lab seeks to understand the genetic mechanisms responsible for determining and regulating the location and size of functional areas in the developing neocortex.

Why is the research you do important? What kind of impact can/could it have?
First, I want to say that all basic scientific research is important. Though it may not always be immediately apparent, understanding seemingly mundane biological processes in various species can often provide valuable information that allows subsequent research to build upon those findings. As for my specific research, understanding the genetic mechanisms that regulate functional area partitioning will not only provide greater insight to the development of the brain, but may also help elucidate some potential genetic mechanisms that contribute to various brain disorders that arise early in life. 

Is there a specific outcome you are hoping to achieve with your research?
No, this is investigative research that is looking to uncover the genes and rules that dictate the development and regulation of area partitioning in the brain (neocortex).

What’s your favorite part about your job?
I enjoy solving problems, and research is very much a problem-solving endeavor. On the large scale you’re trying to understand a complicated process (e.g. problem), but even day to day you’re trying to figure out how to get a given experiment or protocol to work or to work better (e.g. yield cleaner data). So at every level research is largely about solving problems, which is why I enjoy doing research.

Do you have any memorable experiences from your time at MSUM?
My most memorable experience thus far was mentoring the Mayo clinic IMPACT group. The Mayo clinic has an annual competition for Minnesota undergraduates and calls upon them to propose a hypothesis that answers a complex, poorly studied, and poorly understood medical problem. Their proposal was selected as one of the top eight entries and they were invited to give a brief oral presentation at the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minn. Seeing this group of students develop and refine their hypothesis, then prepare a successful proposal was an incredible experience.

Make Sure Your Story Is Heard

Let us know how your life has been changed by being a Dragon: tell us your MSU Moorhead story today!

Send Us Your Story

More Stories from Dragons

View All Dragon Stories