Biology grad heading to Mayo Clinic to pursue career in medicine and research

| Judy Berthiaume

After watching her father struggle with fatigue, pain and other issues for years before he was diagnosed with two tick-borne illnesses, Muriel Metko knew she wanted a career in medicine.

She also knew UW-Eau Claire — with its strong biology program and a Health Careers Center — would give her the foundation and guidance she needed to pursue her dreams of studying medicine and specializing in infectious disease.

“I want to help patients like my father, to find better diagnostic tools and treatment plans,” says Metko, a native of New London who will graduate in May. “I was passionate about pursuing studies in biology in preparation for medical school and UW-Eau Claire was the perfect place to do that.”

As she prepares to graduate, her plans still include medical school, but thanks to a newly discovered passion for research, she also now plans to earn a doctorate along with her medical degree.

By earning an M.D.-Ph.D. dual degree, Metko can practice medicine and engage in research.

Discovering her passion for research

Metko was a sophomore when Dr. James Phillips, professor of chemistry, asked her to join his research team.

She enjoyed it so much that when that first project ended, she joined Dr. Jennifer Dahl's nanoparticle chemistry lab, and now has been on the associate professor’s research team for more than two years.

As a student researcher, Metko has presented research at a national conference, and is working with Dahl and her lab partner on a manuscript for publication, things she never imagined doing just a few years ago.

“As a freshman, I had my eyes set strictly on getting my M.D., but after doing research with Dr. Jim, I knew it was something I wanted to continue with,” Metko says. “UW-Eau Claire gave me a chance to participate in undergraduate research, and that was pivotal in my career-decision process. I wouldn't have decided to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. if Dr. Jim hadn't recruited me.”

Through her on-campus research, Metko learned technical skills that will be useful in her future career, as well as skills like problem-solving and perseverance, which also are critical to be successful in the medical and research fields.

Embracing new opportunities with Mayo Clinic

Last summer, Metko added to her research portfolio when she was one of four Blugolds selected to participate in the Undergraduate Research Employment Program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Working in a lab in Mayo Clinic’s ophthalmology department, her research focused on developing retinal pigment epithelium transplants as a potential therapy for macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss.

“It was incredible to work at a prestigious institution like Mayo Clinic,” Metko says, noting that her summer research project was recently published in the journal STEM CELLS Translational Medicine. “The environment was so professional, and science driven, with buildings filled with thousands of researchers, all working to advance the field of science and medicine.”

It was inspiring to watch clinicians and researchers collaborate as they worked to develop the best diagnostic tools and treatment plans for patients, she says.

“It was very easy to see how my work in the lab was going to be used to help someone someday, and that was really inspiring,” Metko says. “My mentors were great, and I was able to build some wonderful connections there.”

Her experience at Mayo Clinic solidified her future career path, Metko says.

“Prior to going to Mayo Clinic, this was just a career I had read about,” Metko says of physician-researchers. “I’d met medical doctors and plenty of Ph.D.s, but never someone who was both. Part of me wondered if I was crazy for setting out on this course, but after my summer at Mayo Clinic, my plan felt more possible. People were doing exactly what I want to do.

“Here were living, breathing examples of physician-researchers, people who practiced medicine and spent time in their lab advancing the field. I've always been passionate about medicine, but my love for research was acquired at UW-Eau Claire and furthered at Mayo Clinic.”

Pursuing multiple passions, interests

While her academics and research were her priorities, Metko says she also was successful as a Blugold because UW-Eau Claire encouraged her to pursue her other passions, including music, which always had been an important part of her life.

UW-Eau Claire’s reputation for inviting non-music majors into their music programs was one of the things that drew her to the university, she says.

Metko is a member of BASSically Brass, an all-tuba-and-euphonium ensemble, and has participated in Symphony Band and the Tuba Studio.

“Staying involved with music helped me balance my rigorous academic schedule,” Metko says. “It’s something I've really treasured during my time at UW-Eau Claire.”

Metko also has been a leader in student organizations within and outside of her major.

As president of the Biology Club, she’s organized outreach events, including things like stream cleanups and interactive science activities at area schools.

“It's been great to get people excited about biology and to give back to this community,” Metko says.

This year, she began helping to lead a new student organization, Student Advocates for Sexual Assault Survivors, which educates students on topics surrounding sexual assault and advocates for survivors, a cause that Metko is passionate about.

This spring, she helped plan a series of events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, including the first Night March, which was held on and near the campus.

“I'm incredibly proud of the students and community members who showed up to support this cause,” Metko says. “I hope it created ripples that will inspire change on this campus for years to come.”

Overcoming multiple challenges

While Metko’s future is bright, and she’s had numerous experiences as a Blugold that have prepared her well for future success, Metko also has had to overcome many challenges during her college career.

“If there's one word that could describe my time at UW-Eau Claire, it would be perseverance,” Metko says, noting that she already was struggling with chronic pain and serious health issues when she came to the campus as a freshman.

“Being in constant pain led to severe depression and anxiety, and eventually a series of suicide attempts, which I am lucky to have survived,” Metko says.

Her mental health spiraled downward even more after she was sexually assaulted, Metko says.

Following the assault, she worked with counselors on and off campus, including those in the university’s Center for Awareness of Sexual Assault, but still needed time away from her studies to focus on her mental health.

With the help of the Dean of Students Office, she withdrew from UW-Eau Claire for a semester and got the treatment she needed, she says, noting that university staff were supportive as she worked through this extraordinarily difficult time.

After finding the right treatment program and learning to better manage her mental illnesses, Metko returned to UW-Eau Claire, now is finishing her degree and is looking forward to her future.

“Even in the face of all this adversity, I was able to persevere and continue working toward my goal of earning my M.D.-Ph.D.,” Metko says.

As she prepares to graduate, Metko is eager to talk about her struggles as well as her successes as a Blugold because she says students who have mental health issues need to know they are not alone.

While society is beginning to talk more openly about mental illness, the stigmas around it still can be a barrier that keeps many students from getting the help they need, Metko says.

“It was a barrier for me,” Metko says. “I was stubborn, and I felt like I didn't have the time to deal with my depression. I kept putting it off and telling myself I would feel better later, but I didn't. It wasn't until I was honest with myself and accepted that I needed to seek treatment that I started to get better.”

Once she began talking about her mental health issues, she found support in all corners of the campus community, including from faculty, Metko says.

“There are some battles you can't fight on your own,” Metko says. “Asking for help is hard, but your life is worth it. Being open and honest about your mental health is one of the best things you can do for yourself.”

Looking ahead to a bright future

Metko now is excited about the new opportunities that will help her achieve her long-term goals.

After graduation, she will join Mayo Clinic’s Graduate Research Employment Program, where she will work in the biochemistry and molecular biology department studying behavioral genetics in the stress signaling pathway.

Her plan is to participate in GREP for two years, then attend graduate school to earn her M.D.-Ph.D.

With a degree from UW-Eau Claire, Metko is confident she can achieve her goals.

“With a major in biology and two minors in chemistry and pre-professional health sciences, all the courses I've taken at UWEC have given me a solid foundation to pursue graduate studies and earn my M.D.-Ph.D.,” Metko says.

Photo caption: Muriel Metko came to UW-Eau Claire knowing she wanted to eventually earn her medical degree. After discovering a passion for research at UW-Eau Claire, the May graduate now also plans to earn her Ph.D. so she can practice medicine and engage in research.