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Mayo Clinic, UW-Eau Claire offer research competition to undergraduates

| Judy Berthiaume

An aspiring doctor, Caterra Leavens came to UW-Eau Claire hoping that its affiliation with Mayo Clinic Health System would help her build connections with physicians at the world-renowned medical center.

The freshman biology pre-med major never imagined those opportunities would come so quickly.

On March 9, Leavens and her three Blugold teammates will be among those presenting their research to Mayo Clinic physicians, scientists and other medical professionals.

How did a first-year undergraduate student with little research experience find herself in consideration for the potentially life-changing opportunity?

The Bloomer native is part of a four-student Blugold team competing in Mayo Clinic’s Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies (IMPACT) Program, which challenges undergraduate students and their faculty collaborators to find creative solutions to critical health questions.

“I joined IMPACT because I love research and wanted to gain more experience,” says Leavens. “Since I’m a pre-med student, it’s awesome that this program involves Mayo Clinic, where I hope to work as a physician one day.”

IMPACT invites teams of undergraduate students from universities across the Midwest to develop innovative hypotheses that address a single medical challenge question, which this year targets the underlying cause of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

“The IMPACT Program is an incredible opportunity for students at UW-Eau Claire and other Midwest universities to participate in the research process with Mayo scientists and physicians,” says Dr. Mike Carney, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at UW-Eau Claire. “Students explore a complex clinical issue and gain a better understanding of how fundamental research can have a direct impact on patient outcomes.”

Launched in 2014 at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus, the IMPACT Program already has engaged more than 700 students in Minnesota.

However, with the master collaborative research agreement between Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire now in place, it made sense to expand the program and move it to Eau Claire, says Timothy Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., research and innovation director for Mayo Clinic Health System in northwest Wisconsin.

“Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire are bringing together faculty, physicians and students to explore new health care solutions,” says Nelson of the shared program. “This research could ultimately lead to innovative therapies for patients.”

UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System also will co-host the March 9 IMPACT Program Symposium, an event that will bring together medical professionals and more than 175 students, faculty and staff from UW-Eau Claire and universities in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

The symposium, which will begin at 9 a.m. March 9, will be held at Mayo Clinic Health System’s downtown campus.

“Transitioning the symposium from Rochester to Eau Claire is an exciting and natural extension of our collaborative research agreement,” Carney says. “We are proud to be part of the program and we look forward to hosting the symposium for many years to come.”

The invitation to collaborate with other undergraduate students on research about a serious medical issue piqued his interest when he learned about the IMPACT Program, says Seth Subiaga, a kinesiology major from New Brighton, Minnesota, and one of Leavens’ teammates.

Knowing that he and his teammates will present their hypothesis and research to medical professionals from Mayo Clinic, and that their work could someday change or save lives is incredible, Subiaga says.

“I’m excited about the program because it’s an interesting medical problem to study and learn about, one that I had never heard of before,” Subiaga says of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. “Working with others to try to find a cure and cause for this disease is a unique opportunity.

“It would be really cool to be able to be among the people whose work eventually leads to a new discovery.”

Involving students like Leavens and Subiaga — one from a traditional science major and one from a less traditional science background — is among the program’s strengths, Carney says.

When students from diverse academic backgrounds collaborate, it helps them develop multidisciplinary partnerships that work toward a common goal of meeting patient needs, he says.

For IMPACT, students create their own teams that include between two and four students, as well as a faculty mentor.

Leavens’ team includes Subiaga; Elizabeth Keena, a nursing major from Wisconsin Rapids; and Maddy Marasch, a biology major from Plymouth, Minnesota. Dr. Winnifred Bryant, associate professor of biology, is their faculty mentor.

To compete in the program, each team submits in writing its hypothesis relating to the challenge question, along with its rationale and other supporting materials.

“A lot of research was involved,” Leavens says of the project. “Every source says something a little different about the subject. We all had a document where we shared interesting sources and articles with each other as we worked on our hypothesis.”

Student teams also create research posters, which will be displayed during the symposium.

Evaluators select the top student teams that are invited to give oral presentations during the March 9 event.

The symposium is an important part of the IMPACT program because it gives students experience networking with medical professionals and honing their communication skills by presenting their research ideas in a professional setting, Carney says.

Leavens, Subiaga and their teammates are thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of it.

“I love medicine and had a ton of fun participating in IMPACT,” Leavens says. “Now my team gets to share our research with other student groups, researchers and physicians at the symposium. It’s a super good way to network with professionals.”

Members of the winning team each receive $1,000, and are invited to conduct summer research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

“Working at Mayo for the summer, if our group wins, is an awesome opportunity,” Subiaga says. “However, it would be even better to know that we helped or tried to help find a cure for this horrible heart defect.”

An impressive number of Blugolds are participating in this year’s IMPACT competition, which is satisfying since it’s the first year the university is co-managing it and the first year UW-Eau Claire has communicated directly with students about the opportunity, Carney says, noting that he expects even more Blugolds to compete in future years as awareness grows.

Leavens learned about the IMPACT Program from a university email inviting her to an information meeting.

At that meeting, she met Subiaga and they quickly decided to create a team.

They each knew someone from a class who they thought would welcome the challenge, so Marasch and Keena joined them on the project.

The shared experience has been phenomenal, Leavens says.

“I’ve already made so many new connections with different people and professors,” Leavens says . “It’s already opened up different opportunities for me and for my career track. The experience helped me gain knowledge about how research is conducted, and it will be an awesome thing to include on applications for wherever the future may take me.”

Photo caption: Blugolds (from left) Lizzy Keena, Seth Subiaga, Caterra Leavens and Maddy Marasch are among the students competing in Mayo Clinic’s IMPACT Program, a competition that challenges undergraduate students and their faculty collaborators to find creative solutions to critical health questions.