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Summer in Rochester: Mayo research job provides world-class experience

| Denise Olson (story); Jesse Yang (video)

When Blugolds decide they want to do something, they usually follow a "go big or go home" sort of philosophy and let nothing stand in their way of making an impact. So when UW-Eau Claire junior Megan Schleusner decided she wanted to conduct groundbreaking biomedical research, she looked no further than the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to seek a research job.

A college undergrad paid to research at Mayo Clinic ... sound unlikely? 

UREP Mayo in Rochester program, Megan Schleuster and Abhashek Chandra in the lab

Megan Schleusner and Dr. Abhishek Chandra spent summer weeks in his laboratory seeking drug-related therapies for variants of osteoporosis related to menopause and radiation therapy.

Well, that was exactly the case last spring when Dr. Abhishek Chandra of Mayo Clinic hired Schleusner for a position in his lab, a student position funded by the Mayo Clinic Undergraduate Research Employment Program (UREP). UREP is a paid research employee program for currently enrolled college students who have completed at least one year of undergraduate studies.

The focus of Chandra’s lab is the study of age- and disease-related osteoporosis, particularly in postmenopausal women and cancer survivors who have undergone radiation therapy.

“We are studying the mechanisms of these types of bone loss and looking for drug therapies to block those mechanisms,” Chandra said. “Megan has been working on key analysis in seeking these outcomes.”

It’s no accident that Schleusner’s resume was on target for this type of work. The biology major with a pre-professional health science minor has been taking advantage of every transformational learning opportunity available to her since early high school, and it shows.

“UW-Eau Claire has really set me up for success,” said the Colfax native. “I came in with many more experiences than my peers in this program. I completed an internship in Vietnam last summer, working for two weeks at a busy hospital in Hội An; I have worked in Dr. Lyman-Gingerich’s lab for the last three semesters shadowing senior students working on genetics research. Both she and Dr. Julie Anderson have mentored me in lab skills and research and helped me through the UREP application process. Lastly Dr. Tim Nelson from Mayo has made many visits to campus and provided insight into all the opportunities Mayo has to offer.”

Chandra has worked with undergraduates before through the Mayo UREP program and sees huge benefits for both the clinic and the students in this relationship. 

"The long-term interest of the clinic gets the benefit of training these research students for futures in graduate school, many of whom remain at Mayo in our M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs," he said. "And for the students, they are able to co-author published research, and I can have them back a second time to continue where that research left off, producing another publication. For all students planning on graduate school, more publications are always a good thing."

Another tremendous learning outcome that Schleusner sees in the UREP program has been the chance to live the life of a medical researcher for the summer.

“Working alongside these professionals every day has been such a valuable experience,” she said. “I’ve been able to picture myself in this field, doing the work that they’re doing every day. It has been the most helpful outcome overall. I truly wanted to see what my future could look like, what kind of work-life balance I might have. That’s not something that students can often get to see.”

In addition to her research and lab experiences, Schleusner cites many varying Blugold experiences as preparing her for Mayo research work. She is a member of the Pre-Health Professionals Club, Biology Club and STEM for Women, all of which offer valuable networking opportunities. 

Schleusner also holds several different paid jobs, and they all provide her with tools that will be useful to her medical pursuits. Working as a resident assistant in Chancellor’s Hall gives Schleusner ongoing experience mentoring younger students and developing problem-solving skills. Working as an advanced emergency medical technician on an ambulance crew and as an emergency room assistant at Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire give her a solid connection to patient care and best practices in the field, values that Schleusner holds central to all of her career goals.

Chandra was able to connect the work he has seen from Schleusner to what he knows to be her interests in patient outcomes.

“We are trying to find a better quality of life for those patients; the clinical data we are collecting does not yet follow patients, but our ultimate goal is longitudinal studies over time,” Chandra said.

That type of research would combine efforts from Chandra’s lab with other projects at Mayo, those working more specifically with drugs and animal models — another area of interest to Megan.

“Megan has shown interest in different projects in all the labs and has demonstrated a main goal of relating every outcome she seeks to patient care — in how this will help a real patient now or in the future,” Chandra said. “This was something I could see in her CV, and have seen at work here.”

When it comes to patient care, Schleusner can pinpoint the moment she realized how vital a basis of empathy and patient-centered medical practice would be to her future, and she has since kept her eye on that ball.

“I was observing surgery (in Vietnam), and as the surgeon was about to remove the thyroid of a patient, he remarked that he would be paid the equivalent of $2 for that procedure, and the surgical assistant next to him would make $1,” Schleusner recalled.

“It was very eye-opening, and it just hit me right then what the real reason is for going into medicine — it’s the patients and the communication I’d been seeing there in Vietnam. The compassion in those physicians and staff was so obvious and inspiring. They were there for the right reasons,” she said. “I love medicine so much, you don’t have to pay me. It’s about the patients — that’s the reason anyone should be in medicine.”

Whether she chooses a research-based career as an M.D./Ph.D. or a straight M.D., Megan Schleusner knows that her work will stay rooted in the core values of patient care and outcomes. Her UREP experiences at Mayo Clinic are getting her one step closer to those goals.

Top photo caption: Fulfilling yet another academic career goal, Megan Schleusner was selected to participate in the Mayo Clinic Undergraduate Research Employment Program.