Mayo Clinic Fellowship Opens Doors to Passionate Gustie Researchers

Eight students spent ten weeks at one of the country’s leading medical research centers.
Posted on September 20th, 2022 by

Ashley Ley '23 (left) and Katie Lillemon '24 were 2022 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows at Mayo Clinic.

Lillemon was one of eight Gusties who conducted research at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

An advanced degree in the sciences takes years in the making, and at Gustavus, it often begins with undergraduate research. This summer, eight Gustie students were selected for the 2022 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at Mayo Clinic. They conducted groundbreaking research at one of the country’s leading medical centers.

“It was great to see so many Gustavus students and have someone in my corner,” said Katie Lillemon ’24, a biochemistry and molecular biology major who lived in Rochester, MN, with two fellow Gusties during the program. “The fact that this opportunity has been made available to so many Gusties is just awesome.”

Lillemon, who was accepted to the Virology & Gene Therapy department, spent her summer studying how COVID-19 infects infects cardiovascular cells. Other research areas included bioengineering, immunology, and neuroscience.

Lillemon began her journey as an undergraduate researcher through the First-Year Research Experience (FYRE) Program at Gustavus, which helped her make the leap to research at a large institution. Working with professors and fellow students in FYRE taught her valuable lessons that transferred well to the larger stage of Mayo Clinic research. For instance, she said, “It’s really important to plan everything out and establish good teamwork, because science doesn’t get anywhere without collaboration.”

“Establishing connections makes a huge difference,” said Ashley Ley ’23, who conducted research on prostate cancer cells in the clinic’s biochemistry department. During her ten weeks at Mayo, she also networked with research professors and PhD students, and even sat down for a one-on-one conversation with a former Mayo Clinic dean who gave her advice on applying to graduate school.

“Everyone said the most important thing is to be prepared. And remember that institutions are investing in a person, not just a researcher, so talk about your interests and passions.”

For both Ley and Lillemon, their passion for answering fundamental questions about our world stretches back to childhood. While Ley endeavored to understand the ins and outs of her family’s dairy farm, Lillemon poured over microscope slides from her mother’s lab.

When they discovered that their natural curiosity could turn into a career path, everything shifted. “I just have lots of questions,” said Lillemon, “and having a career where your job is to answer life’s biggest questions is so exciting to me. We get to discover things every day.”

“I can do this forever!” said Ley, a biochemistry & molecular biology and chemistry double major. “I can ask a question and then do something to figure it out. And it’s an amazing way to give back, because the research you do ultimately will help people.”

Last summer, Ley landed a research fellowship at the University of Iowa after connecting with a researcher during a Gustavus chemistry seminar. Despite having experience at another large research lab, Ley found she still had much to learn at Mayo. “Every lab is run differently,” she explained. “Still, my summer experiences have helped me feel more prepared and more confident in my ability to work in a professional lab setting.”

When it comes to a career in the sciences, Gustavus students are at an advantage because they are encouraged to develop interests outside their majors. “Schoolwork gets exhausting, and after a certain amount of time, I need a break,” said Ley, who’s also minoring in music. “Having music to turn to as an outlet is huge for me.”

That liberal arts background, combined with an array of research opportunities, leaves Gusties prepared to take on the challenges of an ever-evolving field.

“We discover things every day,” said Lillemon. “We have so many resources available for us to discover the world; it’s such a privilege. It makes me excited to think about the future.”

2022 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows:
Tessa Bierbaum ’23, biology
Kade Copple ’24, biochemistry & molecular biology
Kimberly Hareland ’24, biochemistry & molecular biology and chemistry
Ashley Ley ’23, biochemistry & molecular biology and chemistry
Katie Lillemon ’24, biochemistry & molecular biology
Angel Obiorah ’24, chemistry
Blake Power ’23, biochemistry & molecular biology
Annabel Smith ’24, biochemistry & molecular biology

For Ley, Lillemon, and their cohort, this summer research experience was made possible through the Gilyard Peterson Scholarship, established by Tim Peterson ’83 in honor of his friend, Scott Gilyard ’83, who died of leukemia in 2021.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


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