Cheryl Leyns: In Her Own Words

Published: March 12, 2015
Cheryl Leyns; Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics

I was always that kid with the never-ending questions who wanted to know all of the hows and whys of the world. Naturally, I was drawn to science because there seemed to be an infinite amount of answers to uncover. I was most fascinated by biology, particularly how organisms function on the molecular level. Learning all the tasks that our cells perform daily, from maintaining genetic integrity to satisfying metabolic demands -- it was captivating! 

These interests drove me to take every biology-related class at my high school, including advanced placement, then enroll in molecular and cell biology courses early in my undergraduate career at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. There, I was first introduced to research through primary scientific literature. I was immediately drawn to the notion that I could find the answers to my questions in a systematic way. 

At first, I struggled getting through the articles, but as the courses progressed I started recognizing methodologies and techniques that helped expand my awareness of current scientific problems and grow as a scientist. The more I read, the more I was convinced that research was the path I wanted to pursue. Research allows me to continuously learn and even discover novel ideas that I could never find in a textbook.

Curiosity and scientific enthusiasm have not been the only driving factors in my life. In fact, I would not have been able to pursue them if it were not for basketball. My high school dream was to earn a scholarship to play collegiate basketball simply because I loved the sport. When my father unexpectedly passed away, however, and my mother lost her job, basketball became my ticket to college. Fortunately, I accepted an athletic scholarship to UWP that offered a competitive athletic environment and a molecular biology and bioinformatics major. 

My experiences as an NCAA student-athlete taught me lessons of perseverance, diligence, teamwork, and leadership that I could not have learned in a classroom. I quickly became a time-management expert in order to balance rigorous workouts and road trips with projects and exams. Year-round team commitments and course work restricted my research opportunities, but I completed a thesis project by spending late nights and summers in the lab. Additionally, my commitment to my team was tested three times throughout my career when I suffered ACL knee injuries. I persevered through each setback and contributed significant minutes as the starting center my junior season and as team captain my senior year. 

These challenges taught me valuable lessons in dealing with the stress of adversity and adjusting to varying circumstances. Basketball also showed me that the triumphs are worth the effort. I helped my team to four 20-plus win seasons, two conference titles, four NCAA appearances, two Sweet Sixteen berths, and the highest ever season-ending ranking for UWP of 15th in the nation for NCAA DII. 

Personally, I maintained high academic standing on the Provost's and Dean's lists as well as academic all-conference throughout my career and graduated part of the winningest class in school history with 92 wins and 31 losses. My senior year I was awarded the Academic Achievement Award in Biological Sciences and the Ranger Award, given to the student-athlete at UWP who best exemplifies the positive attributes of intercollegiate athletics. 

These experiences have shown me the value of collaboration to meet a goal, the importance of solid leadership within a team, and the level of dedication it takes to achieve success. However, I am just one of thousands of NCAA student-athletes who desired to go pro in something other than my sport; for me that meant entering the field of biological research.

My first research experience was under Dr. Daphne Pham at UWP working on a collaborative project with the University of Wisconsin-Madison that focused on developing a diagnostic tool to screen iron deficiency (ID) in neonates. The iron storage protein, ferritin, emerged as good candidate for our screen. We hypothesized quantifying ferritin from dried blood spots on Newborn Screening Cards could be used to predict an infant's iron status. Our collaborators collected samples from zero-, six-, and 12-month-old infants and I measured protein concentrations by ELISA. This project put my course work into context and allowed me to draw conclusions from the data. 

In my lab classes, I knew what the expected results were, but for the first time there was no right or wrong answer in my experiment because nobody knew the answer yet! I found positive correlations between ferritin levels in whole cord blood and blood eluted from the cards that supported our diagnostic approach. However, significant correlations were only observed between zero and six months or six and 12 months. 

There are a number of uncontrollable factors in experiments with human subjects, such as iron supplementation, that could account for the lack of correlation between zero and 12 months. Our collaborators are finishing up additional work in order to publish these results. 

This project was a great learning experience, but I realized I wanted to do more basic science research to allow me better control of experimental variables. I shared these findings by presenting posters at scientific symposiums and speaking at UWP's Adventures in Lifelong Learning Program that provides educational events for senior citizens. 

There were not many PIs at my small liberal arts college, which is why I am grateful to Dr. Pham for the opportunity to work in her lab and accommodating my hectic student-athlete schedule.

I have focused my attention toward scientific research since starting the molecular cell biology (MCB) Ph.D. program at Washington University in St. Louis (WU). Other passionate researchers surround me at WU and I am honored to be working alongside distinguished faculty dedicated to helping me become a better scientist. I chose the MCB program at WU because it gave me the flexibility to explore all of my interests. I was captivated by the brain's complexity during my rotations through Dr. Holtzman's laboratory, which led me to join his research group this past March. Our lab aims to understand the initiation and progression of Alzheimer's disease (AD) in order to design treatments.

I was very fortunate to experience the world in a way that inspired me to study science. However, not everyone has the opportunities I did and this motivates me to share my love of science in a variety of ways to encourage students to participate in research. I assisted with "DNA Days" at UWP where I explained molecular cloning to local high school seniors and helped lead them through a restriction enzyme digest and gel electrophoresis of the DNA fragments. Giving students fun, hands-on activities like this helps cement the concepts behind the techniques they learn during class. They also gave me the opportunity to develop my teaching and mentoring style. I look forward to applying these skills to my teaching-assistant position in an introductory biology course next semester at WU.

I continued community outreach at WU by joining two student-run organizations, the Young Scientist Program (YSP) and the Biotechnology and Life Sciences Advising (BALSA) group. BALSA is a non-profit group that provides consulting services to facilitate closer collaboration between local biotechnology companies and WU researchers and students. I have strengthened the leadership and teamwork skills I developed through basketball by working on projects that analyze diverse biological technologies and market receptivity for our clients. YSP aims to improve science literacy and accessibility to local students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I participate in events that bring grade-school classes on-campus to tour real labs and see what research is like first hand. I teach them about the nervous system through fun, interactive modules, and explain my own research experiences. I also travel to the St. Louis Science Center to represent YSP and perform similar demos for children and their families.

These events allow both kids and adults access to the scientific community while I practice communicating the significance of my research and how it impacts their lives. I also have taken on leadership positions as publicity coordinators for these groups. I manage social media outreach for both organization and have increased the Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn followings since stepping into these roles. This is exciting because social media has the potential to reach the widest audience. For YSP, this position also involves compiling weekly newsletters informing our members of upcoming service events. 

I am eager to implement a new platform into YSP curriculum that I recently found through Facebook networking called Versal. Versal is a website that provides templates to create interactive online courses that can be shared with anyone on the Internet. I plan to collaborate with other YSP leaders on the grant application for Versal and look forward to utilizing this cutting-edge technology to benefit local and online communities. 

These experiences have shown me that if I am passionate about science, I can pass that enthusiasm on to someone else. That is why I am making it a priority in my graduate career and beyond to inspire others to care about science or pursue scientific careers themselves.

After receiving my Ph.D., I plan to do a post-doctoral research fellowship and ultimately obtain a position as a principal investigator at a Research 1 university where I can continue basic molecular research in the nervous system and mentor future scientists. 

There will always be something new to learn or investigate. As a professor, I can continue to seek answers to interesting scientific questions, create ways to use the knowledge gained by my research to better society, and share it with future generations. I cannot imagine a more exciting and rewarding career.
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