At any point during the last four years, you might have been able to find Laura Leland ’13 in a biology laboratory in the Nobel Hall of Science. If you didn’t find her there, it might have been wise to look for her in the Björling Recital Hall along with the rest of the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra. Of course it’s very possible that Leland was instead inside Old Main studying religion. Today, it’s much easier to nail down Leland’s location, although you will have to fly to Seattle to find her. The recent Gustavus alumna will likely be inside a laboratory at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Leland is a lab technician at the Center, which is considered a world leader when it comes to research aimed at preventing, detecting, and treating cancer and other life-threating diseases. Leland’s lab investigates cell division using baker’s yeast as a model of normal and aberrant cell division.
“A typical day in the lab usually involves me conducting experiments or preparation for experiments, maintaining lab equipment, and ordering supplies for the lab,” Leland said. “Throughout a week I will attend seminars and meetings of our lab. The exciting part of my job, aside from doing interesting experiments, is that I get to learn a variety of techniques for different projects in the lab.”
When searching for a college, Leland hoped to find a place where she could continue to pursue all of her passions, which included science, religion, music, and swimming. Despite growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Leland chose Gustavus and it turned out to be a perfect fit for her.
“At Gustavus, I had a chance to take a variety of classes which allowed me to connect and think critically across disciplines,” Leland said. “I also frequently discussed academics with students and professors outside of the classroom, which I may not have had a chance to do at another institution.”
Leland settled on a double major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, but made sure to make time for her other areas of interest. She was a member of the swimming and diving team her freshman year, was a four-year member of the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, took several classes from the Religion Department, studied abroad in Ecuador during her junior year, and spent two summers conducting research with Professor Jeff Dahlseid.
“Gustavus definitely gave me many opportunities which made me a better scientist and human being, and I am extremely grateful for those experiences,” Leland said.
While Leland knew she wanted to focus her academic studies on science, she was also interested in furthering her knowledge of religion. She says she was particularly influenced in classes taught by professors Mary Gaebler and Thia Cooper.
“In Mary Gaebler’s course I became very interested in the historical and cultural contexts of religions. Later, I took a class from Thia Cooper which was a very challenging, but extremely rewarding discussion on the importance of sex, race, and money in how we view religions,” Leland said. “Both of those courses greatly expanded my viewpoints and encouraged me to think about the relationship between science and religion in the United States.”
Leland was also able to continue to develop her love for music at Gustavus. Despite contemplating giving up her membership in the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, Leland said that conductor Ruth Lin encouraged her to stick with the experience.
“Dr. Lin was always interested in how her musicians were doing outside of the performance hall and she encouraged me to continue orchestra even when I was unsure about how much I was adding to the ensemble,” Leland said. “Being in orchestra was one of the greatest experiences I had at Gustavus and that was largely due to her leadership.”
While her time with the orchestra and her religion studies were important aspects to her four years at Gustavus, Leland can now look back and say she benefitted greatly from the coursework within her major and the two summers she spent conducting research with Dahlseid.
“While the facts and general knowledge of the biochemical/molecular fields were very important, most important were the chances I had in a classroom setting to think critically about scientific literature and to be able to write knowledgably and articulately in scientific disciplines,” Leland said. “Researching with Professor Dahlseid was an amazing experience which taught me a lot about being independent in a laboratory and the realities of research. This was important for me in a practical sense because it gave me all kinds of hands-on experience in a lab, but it was also important because Professor Dahlseid became such an important mentor to me.”
That mentoring relationship became even more critical when it was time for Leland to start pursuing job opportunities.
“Finding my job ended up being easier than I expected due to a recommendation from Professor Dahlseid,” Leland said. “He continues to be the faculty member at Gustavus who most positively impacted my outlook on careers, vocation, and life goals. He is extremely dedicated to his student’s academic and vocational wellbeing and he has always been a sounding board for my important decisions in coursework, study abroad, and careers. Today, my research experience at Gustavus has helped me to be a proficient lab technician and also helped me narrow down my future goals.”
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