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New grad prepares for future by balancing college classes, research and truck driving school

| Judy Berthiaume

When balancing her studies, research, part-time jobs and all the other demands of student life left Elizabeth Laskowski feeling frazzled, the Blugold decided it was time to make a change.

Did she run a marathon? Learn to meditate? Hide under a table in her research lab?

Nope, nope and nope.

Instead, the UW-Eau Claire materials science major found the balance she craved by enrolling in a nearby truck driving school and going to work part time as a driver for a dairy farmer.

“It was just a crazy desire,” Liz says of traveling down two very different educational paths at the same time. “I was starting to feel bogged down with schoolwork and like I was really narrowing my interests into only STEM. So, I wanted to try something completely outside of my comfort zone to keep things interesting.”

Did it work?

Absolutely, Liz says, noting that she gained even more from the experience than she had expected.

“I was going to the night classes while doing research, schoolwork and we were in the process of writing a paper,” says Liz, an Osseo native. “I learned to just embrace the craziness and it forced me to manage my time better.

“Also, being thrown into a foreign field of study was really beneficial because it helped me remember what it is like to be lost. I learned how to talk about my studies and research to a different audience.”

While she loved everything about the truck driving school, her future career still is in the sciences, says Liz, who will graduate this month from UW-Eau Claire and then go onto graduate school.

“I love all of STEM,” says Liz. “Math, science, physics and biology all intrigue me and I didn't want to choose just one thing to do going into college. Materials science is a great choice for me because it encourages students to explore all the sectors of STEM and to understand how they are all interconnected.

“Students focus on building a strong, broad foundation, then are given the freedom to build upon the areas that interest them most.”

Materials science faculty also introduce students to the kinds of high-end instrumentation that they may work with in graduate schools or in future jobs, Liz says of the appeal of her major.

“As a freshman and sophomore, I was using instruments that typically only graduate students get to use,” Liz says. “That was super cool.”

Even more exciting, Liz says, are the opportunities at UW-Eau Claire to be part of real-world research projects, working alongside exceptional faculty scholars.

Throughout her UW-Eau Claire career, Liz has worked on smart polymers research with Dr. Elizabeth Glogowski, associate professor of materials science.

The possible future applications of their research are significant because of the potential to use smart polymers in the targeted delivery of medications, such as cancer-fighting drugs.

Given the research’s potential real-world impact, her undergraduate research experiences were “hands down” the highlight of her time at UW-Eau Claire, Liz says.

“I jumped into undergraduate research as a freshman and started exploring deeper into materials science, which was invaluable to do at the same time as branching into the other areas of STEM,” Liz says.

Best of all, she gained important research skills, while also contributing to the world of science and research in meaningful and lasting ways, she says.

“We are tackling problems that impact the larger science community, and we know the applications of the research could really benefit society as whole someday,” says Liz. “It is such exciting work to do.”

In addition, Liz also had opportunities to train other undergraduates in the research lab, which she says is rewarding.

The training also is giving her a glimpse of what it might be like to pursue a career in academics, she says.

“It sounds very cliché, but I loved watching that ‘aha!’ moment and watching people grow in skill, understanding and confidence,” Liz says of guiding new student researchers. “It has been very encouraging in my dream to become a professor someday, where I can teach and do research at the university level.”

While UW-Eau Claire’s materials science program was certainly a draw when she was weighing her college options, Liz says there were other important reasons for her to become a Blugold.

Among those reasons was the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her mother and sister, both of whom are UW-Eau Claire graduates.

A chemistry major at UW-Eau Claire, her mother, Carolyn Laskowski, also excelled in and has a love for all things STEM, making it even more rewarding to study at her mother’s alma mater, Liz says.

“Ever since we were little, she has encouraged us to ask the question, ‘why, why, why,’” Liz says of her mother. “And she was the kind of mom who was genuinely curious right there beside us. She is a problem-solver, and has always encouraged my brothers and sisters to be problem solvers, too. I think this has definitely helped to foster my curiosity and passion for exploring new things.”

The university’s affordable tuition and its location close to her hometown also were important to her, Liz says.

“I was really excited that they had such a great materials science program so close to home,” Liz says. “I wanted the greatest value for my money. I worked three part-time jobs in high school because I was funding my college experience, and my goal from the start was to graduate debt-free.

“Not only was UW-Eau Claire a great investment of my tuition money, but being able to commute from home also saved so much money. With the help of scholarships from the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and doing paid undergraduate research, I am really happy to graduate debt-free.”

Among her scholarships was the prestigious Vicki Lord Larson Undergraduate Research Scholarship.

Studying close to home was even more important to Liz after her father was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. Her father died in January 2017.

“The most difficult time of my life was during these past two years at UW-Eau Claire,” Liz says. “Describing that time of my life is impossible. I just don’t have words for the pain and the heartache.”

Focusing on school and research was difficult as she worked through her grief, and tried to give much-needed love and support to her family, she says.

While it was challenging to find a “new normal,” concentrating on her studies, research, graduate school and graduation has helped her to focus on her future, Liz says.

Knowing that her father would want her to keep looking forward keeps her motivated, she says.

“My dad was the closest person to me in this world, and he was always very proud of the things I was doing at UWEC,” Liz says. “He valued independent thinking, genuine hard work and fearlessly embracing the opportunities we are given. Embracing all of the opportunities the materials science department and UW-Eau Claire offers is what he would want me to do.”

Continuing with her research is among those opportunities that she continues to embrace and appreciate, Liz says.

In addition to conducting the research, Liz also has invested great amounts of time and energy into sharing the research with others through conferences, professional meetings and other venues.

“I am proud of the undergraduate research that I have done,” Liz says. “It has been amazing presenting at conferences because I really love talking about our research. I am proud that I have presented at 17 conferences at the local, regional and national levels.

“They have been wonderful networking opportunities and reminders of the beautiful world of science that exists beyond Eau Claire, too.”

Liz encourages current and future Blugolds to make the most of the plethora of opportunities UW-Eau Claire offers, which help students grow personally and professionally.

“If you seek them out, the opportunities are endless,” Liz says. “It really is a great investment of your time and money.”

That is especially true if you are going into materials science, a program with a growing reputation for excellence, Liz says.

“People are recognizing the program all over the state and are excited to hear I am from UW-Eau Claire,” Liz says.

In the fall, Liz will attend Purdue University, pursuing a materials engineering doctorate.

Her hope, she says, is to continue her research focusing on polymers and how they can be used to solve problems in drug delivery, sensors and agriculture.

Eventually, she hopes to educate and work alongside the next generation of scientists.

“My dream is to become a materials science professor someday, where I can inspire other people to pursue careers in STEM and push the edge of scientific understanding through research,” Liz says.

While she is looking forward to earning the title of UW-Eau Claire alumna, she continues to be proud of her success in the truck driving school.

“I am super proud to say that I earned my hazmat, double and triples, tanker endorsements and permits to drive buses and school buses,” Liz says of her success in the truck driving school.

Working both in a campus lab as a researcher and on a dairy farm as a truck driver taught her the importance of having balance in her life, Liz says.

That, she says, is a lesson she will carry with her wherever life takes her in the decades ahead.

Photo caption: Elizabeth Laskowski, an accomplished undergraduate researcher who will graduate with a degree in materials science this month, attended truck driving school during her years at UW-Eau Claire.