Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire will once again bring together faculty, physicians and students to explore innovative health care solutions at the annual research symposium for the IMPACT (Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies) Program on March 7. This unique competition challenges undergraduate students and faculty teams to collaborate on a research project designed to foster creative solutions to current health problems.
This is the second year the Mayo Clinic Health System-Eau Claire site has hosted the symposium, but the IMPACT Program was launched in 2014 in Rochester, Minnesota, where more than 700 Minnesota students had the chance to collaborate with Mayo Clinic physicians and researchers.
This year 42 teams from the Midwest are competing, representing a wide range of institutional types, from small private liberal arts colleges and two-year campuses to large regional comprehensive and R1 doctoral-level universities, including the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. There are five teams representing UW System campuses, including UW-Eau Claire and UW-Eau Claire – Barron County.
The full-day event takes place at the main campus of Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, and consists of poster presentations in the morning, a late-morning keynote address and afternoon oral presentations from the teams. A prize of $1,000 per student is awarded to the winning team, as well as an invitation for a paid summer internship with Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Doug Matthews, professor and chair of the psychology department at UW-Eau Claire, is serving as the lead judge on the panel for the 2020 symposium and was asked to craft the research prompt for the competition.
Matthews, whose own collaborative student-faculty research on campus centers around the science of alcohol abuse and addiction, selected this same topic for teams to examine because it provides an excellent opportunity for a multidisciplinary research approach. It reads:
What is the mechanistic link between binge alcohol drinking, addiction and the function of the neuroimmune system?
“We decided to ask a question that has social, health care and neurobiological interplays to challenge the students with the generation of their novel hypothesis,” Matthews said.
Along with the full day of poster and oral presentations from the teams, the IMPACT Symposium also welcomes a keynote speaker to address the topic of alcohol neurobiology. Dr. Doo-Sup Choi is a Mayo Clinic faculty researcher who Matthews describes as a world leader in the field.
“Dr. Choi is a world leader in investigating the impact of alcohol use and misuse on neurobiology, cognition and emotion using preclinical models,” Matthews said. “He utilizes cutting-edge technology to determine how alcohol addiction develops and why alcohol addiction is maintained. His work is highly funded by the U.S. government and he serves in numerous advisory roles for the scientific community.”
The student experience is key
Allie Easker, a sophomore biology major from Mondovi, is a member of the Blugold IMPACT team and was excited to dive into research about this topic and has found the experience to be excellent preparation for her career goals.
“As a student planning on attending medical school, collaborative research is a key component for preparing me in my future endeavors,” Easker said. “The topic of this year’s question was very appealing to me. Mental health and addiction has always sparked my curiosity, so learning more about this subject was very exciting. Overall, I'm extremely appreciative that I was able to take part in this competition.”
Easker and her teammates Katrina Barnes of De Pere and Caterra Leavens of Bloomer have been working with Dr. Jamie Lyman Gingerich as their faculty mentor for IMPACT. Lyman Gingerich, associate professor of biology at UW-Eau Claire, has been impressed by the initiative and efficiency the team has shown, and is sure that this experience will bolster a variety of skill sets for the students.
“I am excited to serve as a mentor for the IMPACT Program and appreciate the initiative and investment shown by Caterra, Katrina and Allie,” Lyman Gingerich said. “The students approached me about participating and have shown great tenacity delving into a challenging question. As we prepare for the symposium, we will focus on the opportunities for professional development, cross-pollination of ideas between teams and how to communicate the skills refined through participation in this program.”
The team from UW-Eau Claire – Barron County consists of Kylie Van Dyke of Chippewa Falls; Meilin Tang of Ladysmith; and Xinxuyang Zhao of Kunming, China. The UW-Eau Claire – Barron County team worked with faculty mentor Dr. Wufeng Tian, assistant professor of mathematics.
Van Dyke describes the team’s IMPACT research experience. She is especially proud of what they have accomplished given the density of the reading and her teammates both being international students.
“Most of the articles were very dense material. Often, we had to read more articles to fully understand what we initially read,” Van Dyke said. “This was an exciting challenge for all of us to overcome, and it was extremely difficult at times for my two non-native English-speaking teammates. They did a wonderful job summarizing the articles they read when we meshed our ideas together for our paper.”
As more and more opportunities arise for UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System to collaborate and explore mutually beneficial programming and programs, the IMPACT Program will most certainly continue to provide students in all majors a truly unique high-impact learning experience.
Lyman Gingerich summed up the value for both students and the entire community, all of which stand to gain from the innovative problem-solving produced by this competition.
“Moving forward, IMPACT is an exciting way for students to get involved in considering how specific research questions relate to today’s pressing health industry needs.”
Photo caption: Blugolds Seth Subiaga and Maddy Marasch, who competed in the 2019 IMPACT Symposium, are pictured at the poster presentation of their research relating to hypoplastic left heart syndrome.