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Natural Curiosity Pushes this Graduate’s Research to New Heights

| Katie Murphy

Many students rely on academic validation to motivate them in college, and Jocelyn Stepanek was no different. However, her time at UWEC has transformed her source of motivation, from grade-focused, to a natural curiosity for learning.

At Jocelyn’s high school in Rochester, MN, she participated in a research internship with the Mayo Clinic. She realized how interesting and important research is to her and knew that she wanted to attend a college where research is encouraged and supported. After touring UWEC during the Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA), she realized this University checked all of her boxes.

Jocelyn is a biochemistry and molecular biology major with aspirations to attend medical school.

Research and Healthcare
The first undergraduate research Jocelyn participated in used fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy “as a potential diagnostic tool for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).” By scanning liver biopsies from patients previously diagnosed with NASH, they tested if the FTIR could differentiate between a healthy and diseased liver, as well as the different stages of the disease’s progression. Working with Dr. Michael Walsh, Jocelyn had the opportunity to present at CERCA in 2022 and at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in 2023.

Now that her previous research has finished, Jocelyn is working with Dr. Jamie Lyman Gingerich, an associate professor of biology at UWEC. Their work looks at “variants of uncertain significance in propionic acidemia,” a disorder where the body improperly processes proteins and fats. They hope to determine if the variants impact splicing, part of pre-mRNA processing. If they do, the splicing “could be a mechanism leading to development of propionic acidemia.”

The research also works with PreventionGenetics in Wisconsin, and Jocelyn says, “it's kind of nice because it's also working with real patients and [I’m] actually able to really contribute to them.”

Aside from her research studies, she is also part of the Pre-Professional Health Club. This organization has been especially influential for Jocelyn since she has no relatives in the medical field. The organization helps her understand where to begin with applications, classes, etc. and provides a multitude of opportunities to further her learning. Some opportunities she received were attending an Alzheimer clinic that involved community members, and a suture clinic for students to practice.

My friends and I had so much fun that we bought our own little suture kits off of Amazon and now we have suture nights sometimes,” Jocelyn says.

One of Jocelyn’s biggest accomplishments as an undergraduate was making progress in her research and getting to see it all the way through. College was not exactly how Jocelyn imagined it would be, with all the campus changes during COVID-19, but her research helped her feel fulfilled.

Jocelyn was not particularly outspoken when she began college; she was shy and afraid to speak up. But through Honors, she now recognizes the power of her voice.

She says her major classes involve little discussion, but Honors classes are often discussion-based, which Jocelyn says helped her realize speaking up in class is “not scary, because everyone else is doing it.” She feels more prepared for life beyond undergraduate school now that she is comfortable sharing her feedback and opinions.

She also appreciates how Honors classes touch on subjects that aren’t typically covered in “normal” classes. She took HNRS 188 Understanding Contemporary Ukraine with Dr. Heather Fielding, even though she didn’t care much for history. In the end, she says the class was incredibly eye-opening. She loved seeing all the topics students chose to present on and even regularly makes borsch in her apartment now, which is a recipe that they were introduced to during class.

Being part of the Honors Student Council also helped further her voice. She says she really enjoys having a say in what happens in Honors. She joined because 2020 lacked the college experience she was looking for, and she felt that this was a way to gain some of those experiences.

I wanted to be a part of something that was helping bring a sense of community back in,” Jocelyn says.

When asked if she would recommend Honors to incoming students, she replied that it was a positive experience for her. She says Honors courses prepare students for work environments, not only through group projects, but by exposing students to backgrounds and disciplines different from their own.

Oh, The Places She’ll Go
After graduation, Jocelyn will begin to apply to medical schools, either in the Midwest to be close to home or at some schools on the East Coast she is interested in. She currently hopes to work in cardiothoracic surgery, although that might change. No matter what she decides, she's excited for this new chapter of her life.