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Bucking the System

man walking with a dog
Dylan Rust and his dog, Charlie, take a walk near Jacoby Golf Course in Laramie.

By Micaela Myers

Wyoming’s wide-open frontiers are home to outside thinkers with a streak of independence. These traits help University of Wyoming students make new discoveries, push boundaries and open doors. With more than 200 areas of study at UW, no two paths are the same. On the following pages, you’ll meet seven unique students on their own, self-designed routes of inquiry—including Dylan Rust, who is working on the cutting edge of medicine; Christy Bell, who is studying the Western bumblebee; Jandey Shackelford, a printmaking artist currently in Australia on an exchange year; Heather Townsend, who conducts paid research into metabolism and obesity; Lucus Hansen, whose political science research takes him abroad; Morgan Lu, a future nurse who worked in Chile at a clinic for malnourished infants; and Tessa Wittman, who plans to change the world, starting with the endangered Wyoming toad.

Future Physician

Next fall, Dylan Rust—a molecular biology and physiology senior from Green River, Wyo.—hopes to start medical school. Thanks to his undergraduate research opportunities, he’s leaning toward becoming a kidney transplant surgeon. 

“Particularly when you’re going into medicine, understanding the basic science side of medicine and understanding how discoveries are made in the lab is really important,” says Rust, a recipient of UW’s Trustees’ Scholars Award. “When you’re the first one to know something ever, it’s an experience that is matched by very few things.”

Rust began his undergraduate research funded by INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) his sophomore year studying enzymes in fatty liver disease—a major cause of liver transplants that’s becoming more common as obesity is on the rise.

He now works in molecular biology Associate Professor Grant Bowman’s bacterial anatomy lab.

“We’re looking at proteins that organize the ends of bacteria and how they work and looking at the protein-protein interactions,” Rust says. “INBRE is really supportive. There’s a lot more one-on-one with faculty versus the other schools I’ve been at in the summer.”

At University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Rust completed a 10-week summer program studying biliary atresia, the leading cause of pediatric liver transplants. The following summer, he went to Harvard Medical School’s kidney research program to study the chemotherapy treatment cisplatin and the mechanism by which it causes kidney damage.

Rust found UW’s Honors College gave him a multidisciplinary experience. He’s now a mentor for the program. “Our goal is to help freshmen with the high school to college transition,” Rust says.

He’s also served as a teaching assistant for organic chemistry and microbiology and on the executive committee of Mortar Board honor society. Rust’s freshman year, he competed in discus for track and field.

Rust believes UW’s small class sizes and professor accessibility set the university apart. “That makes a huge difference,” he says, noting that relationships with professors open the doors for research, references and more. “Those connections are really important, and at other places you just don’t get that.”

He says the intimate size of UW doesn’t come at the sacrifice of quality. “I’ve found that our faculty are really impressive,” Rust says. “The work they’re doing is really good, they’re very knowledgeable, and the connections they have are really great.”

woman with large collection of pinned insects
Christy Bell spent the last two summers studying the Western bumblebee.

Bee Scientist

“The Western bumblebee was once one of the most common bumblebees across western North America,” says zoology master’s student Christy Bell of Laramie. “Over the last few decades, the bee has experienced drastic population declines. The Western bumblebee remains relatively unstudied in the Intermountain West, especially in Wyoming. I’ve spent the last two summers sampling pollinators all across Wyoming to establish some baseline information on where the western bumblebee occurs and what types of environments it seems to prefer.”

Bell also completed her undergraduate degree at UW and appreciates how the university encourages undergraduate research and provides a fantastic support system. “The research experience I gained at UW is one of the main reasons I’m still here today, and I’m overjoyed to be able to pay that forward myself,” she says.

In addition to research, Bell finds outreach especially rewarding. She worked with the Entomology Club and the Biodiversity Institute at a table in the Wyoming Union offering treats with edible insects, giving talks for Pollinator Week and teaching K–12 kids about invertebrates.

“Outreach has been a very meaningful part of my time at UW because it connects me with members of the community and allows me to spread some great knowledge about a lesser-known group of animals,” Bell says. “Outreach has also provided me with invaluable experience and has helped me grow as a person and an educator.”

After completing her master’s degree this spring, Bell plans to pursue her Ph.D.

woman with stethoscope carrying a clipboard
Morgan Lu volunteers at Laramie’s Downtown Clinic.

Nurse Extraordinaire

Senior nursing student Morgan Lu of Mead, Colo., hopes to work internationally and complete a residency before one day becoming a nurse practitioner and opening a clinic to expand access to health care. Thanks to UW and the Cheney Study Abroad service learning project scholarship, she’s already had experience working in another country and serving those in need. During spring semester of her junior year, she worked at a clinic in Chile for malnourished infants. 

“I’m thankful I’ve had these opportunities at UW,” Lu says. “It was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life.”

Another standout experience of her college career includes being chosen by UW to attend the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s annual Student Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. “Seeing the change you can make in the political realm within advocacy was huge,” she says. “I never knew that as a student you could have that big of a voice, especially with our senators in Wyoming. They cared, and they listened.”

Throughout her time in Laramie, Lu took her own advice that she would give to other college students: Try everything. “You never know where you’re going to end up four years later,” she says.

After joining “every club possible” her freshman year, she found her passions in campus ministries, serving as a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters, volunteering at the Downtown Clinic, tutoring for UW Athletics, playing intramural sports and working as a ski instructor at Snowy Range Ski Area.

“Laramie is what sets UW apart, because the community of Laramie is so involved with UW,” Lu says. “It’s different than any other college town I’ve been to. Additionally, professor interaction is unparalleled. You build relationships, and that’s great. I’m super thankful for my time at UW. I’ll forever treasure Laramie and the campus.”

woman working on a print at a table
Jandey Shackelford works on her printmaking in the Visual Arts Building.

Artist and Printmaker

Jandey Shackelford of Gillette, Wyo.—who will graduate with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in spring 2020 with minors in museum studies and art history—says that not many people realize the amazing printmaking facilities UW houses in its Visual Arts Building. Her art focuses on intaglio printmaking, where a copper plate can create multiple prints. “The concept of my work is the objectification of women. I’ve been using candy imagery to try to portray that,” Shackelford says. “I think a lot of women are seen as eye candy or a piece of candy.”

Her future goals include a Master of Fine Arts degree, working as a professional artist and teaching. This year, she’s spending a year abroad as the first UW student at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. The exchange program allows her to pay UW tuition, and the university is within walking distance of many galleries and museums.

Being the first isn’t something new to Shackelford, who is a first-generation student paying her own way through college. Because of this, she describes herself as independent in addition to creative. “I chose UW because I’m financially supporting myself through college, and UW is not only reasonably priced but gives out good scholarships,” she says.

After transferring from Sheridan College, Shackelford became an assistant at the UW Art Museum and also curated an exhibition as an intern there. “I worked at the Brinton Museum when I was in Sheridan. It was such a nice transition when I came here and the museum wanted to have a student worker,” she says.

She also found a home in the Student Art League. For just a $5 yearly membership, students receive free life drawing sessions and free food at meetings, and the registered student organization helps support a food pantry in the building. The league also hosts an annual art sale to raise money and puts on a student art show. 

“UW and Laramie as a town are very accepting of people, and there’s a really good sense of community here,” Shackelford says. “If you go into any club or meeting, I feel like their arms wide open.”

two people at a table with coffee and books
Lucus and Nicholas Hansen study at Coal Creek Coffee downtown.

International Scholar

For Lucus Hansen of Seattle, Wash., the road to his undergraduate degree featured many hills and turns but resulted in great success. “Before I came to UW, I had gone to five different colleges and failed out of every single one,” he says. “I was 26 when I applied to UW and was denied. I sent a letter to the admissions director saying, ‘I don’t feel like my past failures represent what I’m capable of.’ I promised them if they let me in, I wouldn’t waste this opportunity. They admitted me. The first two semesters, I didn’t do so well. I didn’t know how to be a student. UW helped me with support. It was then that I really got involved in UW and all the services it offers.”

Hansen excelled so much that he became a tutor, then a peer mentor. When he decided to stay on at UW for a master’s degree in political science, he became adjunct faculty for the Bridge—UW’s supported learning community for first-year students. Hansen finds teaching very rewarding.

As an undergraduate, he also joined the McNair Scholars Program. “McNair’s main mission is to have a diverse range of Ph.D. holders across the country,” Hansen says. “When I first came here, I didn’t know the difference between an undergraduate and graduate degree. My parents had never finished high school. They knew college was worthwhile, but they didn’t know how to go about it. The McNair program was super helpful for going on to graduate school.”

Hansen’s international research on conflict and society rebuilding began with McNair and his adviser Professor Stephanie Anderson and has carried on into his graduate project. This past summer, Hansen spent two months in Bosnia studying the European Union and peace and conflict resolution there. Before arriving in Bosnia, he took a UW faculty-led trip to study the education system in Finland. During his time abroad, he visited nine countries in all and has also traveled to conferences throughout the United States.

“I truly believe there’s no better place to study international politics than here in Wyoming,” he says, noting the funding, travel and outstanding faculty. Hansen is now joined at UW by his younger brother, Nicholas.

“I think UW is a hidden gem,” Hansen says, giving special credit to his supportive professors.

“I feel a lot of my success would not be possible without the support of Department Head Stephanie Anderson, Professor Brent Pickett and McNair Assistant Director Susan Stoddard.”

Hansen eventually plans to get his Ph.D. In the meantime, he would love to write and research or teach. “What I really came to UW for was a platform where I can put my mark on this world—whether that platform is teaching, writing for a think tank or journalism for op-ed pieces,” he says.

woman holding object
Heather Townsend conducts undergraduate research in the School of Pharmacy.

Biomedical Researcher

A transfer student from Central Wyoming College, senior biology major Heather Townsend of Douglas chose UW in part for its Wyoming Research Scholars Program (WRSP).

“It’s an awesome program,” she says. “We get funding to do the research. They connect you with a mentor if you don’t have one already. They also put on a lot of events outside of the research.”

Townsend knew she wanted to do medical research, and WRSP connected her with School of Pharmacy Associate Professor Baskaran Thyagarajan. In his lab, they are looking at developing treatments for obesity, including the use of chili pepper capsaicin to increase metabolism.

The research helped Townsend develop her independence. “I’ve gotten to the point in the lab where I’m very independent and can show the new students what to do,” she says.

Through the research, she discovered she wants to become a biomedical researcher.

“I’ve learned a lot of techniques that I think will help with my future career goals,” Townsend says. “I went to a conference in Florida this summer and presented some of my research. That was a really good experience. I made some contacts with professors at potential graduate schools. It’s been very beneficial.”

The WRSP also includes resume building, professional development opportunities and outreach. Townsend helped with UW’s Women in STEM event and plays intramural volleyball and basketball. “I was really into sports in high school and community college, so it’s been a good way to continue doing what I like outside of school,” she says. “I’ve met new friends playing intramural sports.”

Townsend may stay on at UW for graduate school and then is open to working in the private sector or academia as a biomedical researcher. She recommends UW to future students based on its professors and programs.

“I’ve had a lot of great professors give me guidance, especially in the lab I’m working in,” Townsend says. “I think making connections with professors is really crucial. That’s one big positive I got from UW, as well as the programs like WRSP.”

woman and a dog
Tessa Wittman takes a break from her field work with her dog, Whiskey.

A Voice for Endangered Species

“I want to change the world,” says junior Tessa Wittman of Minneapolis, Minn., who is majoring in wildlife and fisheries biology and management and environment and natural resources. “This university is the best opportunity to acquire the tools I’m going to need to be a voice for our endangered species and our ecosystems, which don’t often get to have an advocate at the table for policymaking. Finding positive solutions for our biosphere is my long-term career goal.”

Wittman chose UW for the affordable out-of-state tuition, “as well as the fact it has the most cutting-edge research, the most access to federal lands and the most field-research opportunities.” 

She dove right into those opportunities and for the past two summers worked as a field technician for the Wyoming toad program through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wittman explains that Wyoming toads are one of the most endangered amphibians in North America, and they are endemic to the Laramie basin. Her personal research involves developing genetics tools that will allow researchers to tell whether a toad has been in the water with a simple water sample.

In addition, Wittman works as a research assistant in the Ruckelshaus Institute on a project studying the human dimensions of sagebrush management in partnership with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

While these projects keep her busy, she’s also involved in UW’s Wildlife Society and serves as vice president of Restoration Outreach and Research Club on campus. Through that club, Wittman is working with BikeNet on land and trail restoration.

This winter, she took a faculty-led trip to Ecuador for a tropical field ecology course. “It’s one of the most biodiverse areas in South America—1,600 species of birds,” Wittman says. “UW does an excellent job of getting students really good hands-on experience.”

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