Emily Steffke: Oh, the places you'll go

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Emily Steffke, from Beal City, Mich., is a junior majoring in Neuroscience and English. She is a College of Natural Science Deans Research Scholar.

When I started dabbling in research, I had no idea how many places it would take me.

One of the coolest things about research is there are so many labs across the country and around the world, all tackling some of medicine’s largest problems from unique angles. Every lab has its own niche. One of the most daunting parts of being an aspiring researcher is trying to figure out your own niche. What is it that I’m most passionate about? How can I study it in a way that’s different from what anyone else is doing?

As a freshman, overwhelmed by how much there was to learn about what centuries worth of biologists and chemists had already figured out, I was nearly discouraged – how could there possibly be anything left for me to contribute? As I got deeper into research and upper-level classes, I realized just the opposite is true – we have so many more questions than answers, and new research techniques and technologies are only expanding the things we can probe into.

For me, the process of discovering what I’m most passionate about means trying lots of different things. With my MSU research under my belt, I’ve spent my summers in different labs, studying a wide range of topics in some very different places.

Following my freshman year, I spent the summer at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., right outside of Washington, D.C., where I researched the role of critical brain dynamics (a complicated set of physical parameters that can be used to understand the ways in which neurons make others fire) in mouse models of schizophrenia and coordination disorders such as Tourette’s and Huntington’s diseases.

The next summer, I was on the opposite coast at the University of Oregon, where I studied the role of certain interneurons in how the brain attaches meaning to sounds.

Last summer, I was at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany, pursuing my budding interest in cancer – my research investigated how certain molecules called glycosphingolipids effect how the kidney filters chemotherapeutic toxins.

Each experience meant totally different experiences in the laboratory. I spent my days in D.C. doing brain surgeries on mice. In Oregon, I was using lasers and electrophysiology to record the firing of mice’s brains as they listened to different sounds. In Germany, I spent a lot of time doing cell cultures and lipid biochemistry.

But more than that, each summer was an opportunity to explore what it’s like to live in a different place. Being in D.C. was my first experience living in a big city. I’d run along bike paths sweltering in the heat and meet up with friends to shop and visit the Smithsonian museums. In Oregon, I did most of my runs on the famous Pre’s trail, and spent nearly every weekend camping. In Germany, I’d run along the river and greet passersby with a “Guten Morgen,” and take the train each weekend to a new city or even country. Each place offered its own benefits and challenges, but was ultimately an opportunity to carve my own niche in places vastly different from my rural Michigan hometown.

Have I found my research niche yet? Perhaps. It could be in neuro-onco-immunology, investigating the ways in which the immune system functions in brain cancer and pushing the boundaries of immunotherapy in clinical trails of patients with brain tumors. I’m sure that as I continue my research career, I’ll continue to evolve my goals.

In the end, research has been about so much more than the exploration of scientific ideas. Research is about exploring new places, new ways of thinking, new ways of living, and new ways of understanding my role in this world.

Where will I be this coming summer? Good question – maybe back to the National Institutes of Health? Maybe in Montana? Wherever it may be, one thing is for sure—I can’t resist the urge to be somewhere different and dive into another area of research.