Elliott Welker, '11 B.S. (Microbiology and Biotechnology), '13 M.S. (Microbiology)

By Ellen Buysse

Elliott Welker is practically a VMS elder. After graduating from NDSU with both a bachelor’s and master's degree, he traveled a whopping 150 feet from the south end of Van Es to the north end to pursue a PhD in genomics and bioinformatics in Dr. Nathan Fisher's lab.

When asked exactly what he does, he explained that he’s currently “working alongside the USDA to better understand the effects of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honey bees. Honey bees play a huge role not only for honey, but economically as well, as billions of dollars worth of crops get pollinated solely by honeybees each year.”

He chose to study microbes “because they affect everyone and will always affect everyone. They can save our lives or end them quickly; they are such simple forms of life, yet so complex.” But it’s more than just complexity that drives Elliott to inhabit his lab space for 60 hours a week (including many weekends and holidays). It’s also the mystery; that you can go out and grab a handful of dirt and find tons of never-before-seen microbes.

He does occasionally escape the lab, and when he surfaces, he does things like found the Veterinary & Microbiological Sciences Graduate Student Association, or VMS GSA for short. He is the current GSA president and organizes things like a periodic journal club, the VMS fall picnic, and "meet and greets" with visiting professors. The organization even went to a local high school to talk to science classes about research going on in VMS.

But his research is his primary focus because it will be that important springboard into, what he hopes will be, a career with the USDA, DOE, EPA, or other federal, research agency.

Breanne Steffan, ‘13 B.S. (Microbiology)

Breanne is currently pursuing a PhD (Molecular Pathogenesis) in Dr. Jane Schuh’s lab. Her experiences here at VMS are nothing short of inspirational.

By Rhiannon Dockter, VMS Undergrad

* What course really stuck with you/changed your view of the world?

There isn’t just one course that stuck with me and/or changed my view of the world; however, my experiences as an undergraduate research assistant did have an impact. I started in Dr. Jane Schuh’s lab as the person who took care of the mice and washed the dishes. As time progressed, I was able to become more involved in experiments, and I learned a number of different techniques that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn in class…Working in a lab is akin to being part of a team.
Each aspect is important, even if you are just washing dishes.

* What was your favorite moment or faculty member in the VMS department? Could you share a story about it?

When I was a junior, I was meeting with my advisor, Janice Haggart, and we were discussing my future goals…she never once said that I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do… she helped open doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. This includes discussions about the GraSUS program and an undergraduate research opportunity with ASM that I also have Dr. Schuh to thank for. The VMS department is special in that they are welcoming and encouraging. I am fortunate to have been an undergraduate and now a graduate student in this department.

* What was your most embarrassing or profound experience while working in a science lab or class?

Yet again, it wasn’t really in a class or lab that I had an embarrassing or profound experience, but it involved a fellowship with the GraSUS program that I received my senior year. This program takes undergraduate and graduate students involved in STEM disciplines and sends them to area classrooms. I was assigned to an AP Chemistry classroom because there aren’t many schools in the area that have Microbiology classes and I was minoring in Chemistry… I had a pretty profound experience in the class. There were some students that had a hard time asking questions when they didn’t understand the material, and I was able to connect with them…I even had the added thrill of running into one of the students again just a few weeks ago and finding out that they are doing well and that they remembered that time that I spent in their classroom.

* What is your favorite science related movie or book and why?

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley because it reminds us that as scientists we have a responsibility to conduct research responsibly and carefully. What we do can have an impact on the future world so we must make it a positive impact.

Akshat Sharma, BS '11 (Biotechnology) and MS '13 (Microbiology)

Akshat is currently pursuing a PhD in Dr. Jenny Gumperz's lab in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before this, he completed a Master's in Dr. Jane Schuh's lab.

These are the top five things (in no particular order) that you need to know about Akshat to understand why he is much missed around VMS:

  • He uses words like, “Alas!” and “impecunious," and says things like, "Happy to help, dearest heart!" and in describing his science idol, Dr. Schuh, "She is whip-smart, assertive, and most importantly, so, so, so chic! I want to be her!"
  • If science hadn't called so insistently, he "would have been an actor, or a Henry James scholar at Bryn Mawr!"
  • He might, occasionally, do something unscientist-y like stab himself with "one of the slenderer Sharpies" while labeling tubes and then get banned from using fine-point Sharpies in lab. But then he also wows, with his wit, his literary references, and his dedication to his craft. For example, he describes a typical day as a PhD student in this way: "It usually starts at 5 a.m. I caffeinate, come into lab, set-up/perform experiments. Around 9, I either go to class or I go teach a class. I set up the next day’s experiments in the afternoon or do some data analysis, and head to the gym around 5 or 6.” Except for Fridays, of course. “On Fridays, I’ll go to the Babcock Dairy Store instead of the gym, and treat myself to the University’s homemade ice-cream.”
  • He values friendship, collaboration, and his scientific roots. “Graduate school can be isolating, and is often packed with rather reserved and/or competitive folk. Meredith Irsfeld and I rose above that. We still stay in touch. We talk science, we bicker, we keep each other sane.” And Akshat can schmooze with the best of them. “During the final year of my M.S., Dr. Schuh sent me to the Experimental Biology conference in Boston to present my results. I hobnobbed with some renowned allergists and immunologists who praised my work, made new friends (with whom I am still in touch), and felt so proud of all that I had accomplished. I was also proud that I was there representing VMS! We are Bison. We thunder!”
  • And finally...he's not too much of a Badger to play a little word association game:

Roller coaster or ferris wheel? A: Ferris coaster. How fun would that be?!

Sheldon or Howard? A: Amy Farrah Fowler.

Tumblr or Twitter? A: Twitter. My feed is very profane, but allows me to reach out to eminent scientists.

Shakespeare or Jane Austen? A: Oh, come on, now! Jess! Don't do this to me! Whose Twitter feed would be better, though? Both made epigrammatic statements about life and love. Think about that!

Will do, Akshat! For more from one our favorite VMS sons, check out his essay about the value of tackling a Master's before launching into a PhD program. He also blogs here.