“For me, there is something about the unknown world that just sucks me in and pushes me to find answers,” said Jenna, who also enjoys fly fishing, camping, exploring the outdoors and growing her “jungle” of plants.
It’s not surprising that Jenna has immersed herself this summer in a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is working with researchers to better understand Neonatal Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) — a serious gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
The Southeast biology major from Wildwood, Missouri, landed the sought-after REU after going the extra mile during this past academic year – emailing the program asking if she could visit the lab, resulting in an invitation to come to the University of Iowa College of Medicine and see their research up-close. In the weeks that followed, she intensely prepared, studying the microbiology faculty’s scientific publications and recent achievements, then traveled to the campus and met the faculty, all while making a powerful impression that sealed the deal on her application and ultimate acceptance into this coveted summer experience.
Jenna is working under Dr. Steven McElroy, a world-renowned neonatologist who serves as both a clinician at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and a member of the Microbiology and Immunology Department at the University of Iowa. The lab focuses its research on NEC, experimenting with mice, whose intestinal track develops in a defined, sequential pattern similar to humans. Examining mice at various points during their first four weeks of life is allowing researchers to better understand how inflammation affects the intestines of premature infants, she said. Jenna is running experiments and tests, analyzing resulting data to study the antimicrobial properties and effects of an antimicrobial peptide, LL-37.
“I spend hours upon hours reading the literature about NEC, antimicrobial peptides and new procedures published by other individuals that may assist me with diagnosing my own roadblocks,” she said. “Often these issues have forced me to expand my knowledge base from just microbiology and immunology into fields such as biochemistry, medicine and chemical engineering, which has been really beneficial in terms of expanding my educational horizons.”
Her day-to-day activities include assisting with feeding, husbandry and cleaning, learning techniques used by the lab group; attending daily research seminars by faculty and doctoral students; participating in conferences about the latest advancements in microbiology and medicine; assisting in the lab; and attending REU meetings.
“It’s pretty crazy, and there is hardly any downtime, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said.
The lab is classified as a translational research group, meaning it takes basic biological and chemical research and translates it into medicinal practices.
It is “an incredible process to be able to witness firsthand,” Jenna said.
She’s had the unique opportunity, under the guidance of a clinician, to go on rounds in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, watch a mother give birth, and see firsthand “what life for families entails as they struggle to move forward in life after having a baby born with life-threatening complications,” she said.
She has witnessed children suffering through the early stages of this disease all the way to a child past intervention who, unfortunately, will die due to the severity of the illness.
“Seeing a child on the brink of death right before your eyes is an experience I will never forget for as long as I live,” Jenna said. “The only way I can describe it is that it makes your heart completely stop — and for a moment you just want to pick up that child and cry for them — but then moments later, you remember that this child, and all of the other children suffering with Neonatal Necrotizing Enterocolitis are the reason why you work 10-hour days every day and face all of the failure in the lab only to have that one breakthrough success. That one success might, one day, save that child, and so it becomes a driving force and motivator that has made this entire experience probably one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had in my life.”
She’s also had the opportunity to meet members of the genetic research company IDT (Integrated DNA Technologies) and discuss career paths in microbiology, and attend seminars hosted by various University of Iowa departments. At the end of this month, Jenna plans to present her research at the University of Iowa’s research conference and, in the upcoming school year, at Southeast’s Student Research Conference.
Outside of the lab, she and her fellow REU students have kayaked at Terry Trueblood Reservation, hunted fossils at the Devonian Fossil Gorge, visited the old Iowa capitol building, attended Iowa City’s Summer Arts Festival, and enjoyed live music and lunch outdoors at “Science Thursdays” at the University of Iowa’s science/medical wing.
When she returns to Southeast in the fall, Jenna says she plans to apply to graduate school at the University of Iowa, where she hopes to, one day, earn doctoral and post-doctoral degrees in microbiology.
“My ultimate dream is to work for a large research university and become a professor,” a career path inspired by Dr. Jeremy Ellermeier, former Southeast assistant professor of biology, in whose bacterial genetics lab she helped research the TAT secretion system found in Salmonella typhimurium.
“After experiencing what biological research was like (in Dr. Ellermeier’s lab), I knew that research was where I was meant to be,” said Jenna, who started out as a nursing major. “I was immediately called to it. I never looked back.”
She is a member of Alpha Xi Delta sorority and the Jane Stephens Honors Program at Southeast but admittedly is focused on her education.
“I am one of those people who loves watching nature documentaries, clicking on random Facebook articles about cool science, and basically just about anything classified as ‘nerdy,’ Jenna said. “This is who I am, and I am proud to call myself a ‘biology nerd’ just looking to leave my small mark on this world.”