When Upper Iowa University senior Sawyer Bawek was congratulated by UIU President William R. Duffy for having the highest grade point average on the Peacock baseball team, Duffy emphasized the importance of networking and seeking out every opportunity that brings you closer to your goals. During the discussion, Bawek mentioned his interest in medical research, and Duffy encouraged the Arcadia, Wisconsin, native to investigate internship possibilities with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
While this was an opportunity Bawek had never dreamed possible, he subsequently submitted his application packet to the NIH Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology (LMIV). An exercise and sports studies and pre-med major, with a chemistry minor, Bawek was offered an internship position at the Rockville, Maryland, facility during the summer months of 2016.
During his residency, the UIU student conducted research and experiments for the antigen discovery unit. The goal of the studies was to identify new target antigens to be assessed as malaria vaccines. Bawek was also able to travel to the main campus in Bethesda, Maryland, to job shadow alongside other college students. The patients being studied had been referred to the NIH for research purposes due to their lifelong, unknown diagnosis. Bawek and the other students met the patients and their families, learned how to communicate with patients and studied their medical history.
“The patients were very willing to explain their story in hopes that the future medical students in the room could help with their individual cases in the future,” Bawek said. “The interaction between the patients, my colleagues, and the NIH staff and leadership was a rare opportunity that likely would never have happened without my experience here at UIU.”
As President Duffy reflected on Sawyer’s internship, he commented, “I was very excited when Sawyer informed me that he had submitted his application to NIH LMIV, and in speaking with the staff and leadership at NIH, it was no surprise to me that Sawyer performed superbly, which I firmly believe will open more opportunities for Sawyer and other UIU students in the future. In addition, Sawyer’s acceptance and performance at the NIH LMIV is also wonderful testimony to the high-quality education and outstanding faculty we have here at UIU!”
While acknowledging the opportunity to continue his athletic career at a university close to his Wisconsin home played a role in his decision to become a Peacock, he emphasized the financial aid provided by UIU was among the biggest factors in the decision-making process.
“I grew up with my mother having cancer and it recurred on multiple occasions while growing up, including my time in college,” Bawek explained. “This is also the main reason I chose the medical field. Upper Iowa offered me a full-ride academic scholarship known as the Students of Excellence Scholarship, and knowing that I would not be passing any financial burden onto my family made my decision to attend UIU especially easy.”
An exercise/sport studies major, with a minor in chemistry, Bawek also credits the UIU faculty and coursework for helping him acquire the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in conducting his research.
“The classes provided me the scientific background and lab experience I needed before going into the internship at NIH,” Bawek said. “The entire experience provided valuable knowledge and connections in my pursuit toward a career in medicine.”
Bawek plans to apply to medical school after UIU commencement ceremonies in May 2017. As the application process takes about a year to complete, he is optimistic the experiences he gained while attending Upper Iowa will provide him the opportunity to obtain a post-baccalaureate research position to fill the gap year.
“Sawyer is an extremely focused student, who works exceptionally hard,” UIU Professor of Chemistry Dr. Erik Olson said. “I believe that he is capable of doing anything he wants.”