With the help of the Peacock family, an Upper Iowa University senior recently experienced firsthand the impact research has in the medical field. An aspiring doctor, Julia Szepieniec was one of only 1,200 applicants nationwide to be chosen to participate in the 2019 National Institutes of Health (NIH) summer internship program.
Funded and managed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the internship program allows qualifying participants an opportunity to conduct biomedical/ biological sciences research utilizing the latest biochemical, molecular and analytical techniques in a given field.
“My NIH experience was an extremely educational and rewarding opportunity,” Szepieniec said. “While I am greatly appreciative of the support provided by many members of the Upper Iowa community, I am especially grateful to UIU alumni Sawyer Bawek ’17 and UIU President William R. Duffy.”
Duffy strongly encouraged Szepieniec to apply for the internship after Bawek first informed her about the program. Duffy previously provided similar encouragement to Bawek, who would intern at the NIH Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology in Rockville, Maryland.
After learning more about Bawek’s experience, Szepieniec submitted her application and was awarded the opportunity to work in the NIH Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology in Bethesda, Maryland. Assigned to the center’s Recombinant Antibody and Antigen Discovery Unit, she assisted in the study of placental malaria. Szepieniec’s chief responsibility was to keep a culture of human episomal kidney cells alive and uninfected to harvest a production protein of interest every 24 hours. While documenting her work, she also helped other members of the lab unit with various tasks, such as protein purification.
“I was invited to attend weekly lab meetings to further my knowledge about placental malaria as well as gain a better perspective about the various avenues researchers are now exploring,” Szepieniec said. “I also had the opportunity to attend a secondary journal club for six weeks. I chose to study skin development and repair. It was a unique opportunity to learn from researchers in the field and meet other interns from across the country working in various institutes at the NIH.”
NIH interns are required to execute a research project and produce a poster that displays the results of their work. Szepieniec’s research project focused on the establishment of a potential placental malaria vaccine candidate within a stable cell line using an enhanced episomal vector (EEV). The EEV system is a nonviral, nonintegrating system that may provide longterm transgene expression of a protein of interest in target cells. Protein production is a stepping stone to vaccine development.
Her decision to conduct this research stemmed from travel with a UIU contingent to Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua, an area with malaria concern.
“During our time there to promote entrepreneurial opportunities to the community members, I was able to connect with students similar to myself, and it was surreal to realize that they may face the threat of attaining malaria during their daily lives,” Szepieniec said. “I felt a strong tie to the topic of placental malaria from my experience in Nicaragua, and I could not imagine women, my age or older, suffering from such a devastating disease.”
“Sharing my findings with the Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology personnel proved to be one of my most memorable moments,” Szepieniec said. “It was a unique opportunity to dive deeper into the skills and knowledge I obtained over the summer as well as explain my train of thought as I faced pivotal points during the progression of my experiment.”
In addition, the biology major from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, attended small panel discussions at the Office of Intramural Training & Education Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Research Career Fair. With hundreds of graduate and medical school programs in attendance, the event is one of the largest career fairs in the nation.
Throughout her internship, Szepieniec applied the essential skills taught in an individualbased UIU research class. She credits the coursework for allowing her to obtain a higher proficiency in the lab.
“Upper Iowa invests in the individual skill sets of each of their students,” Szepieniec said. “My professors have provided me with guidance and have taken the extra time to answer my questions, aiding my development into the young adult that I am today. The curriculum at Upper Iowa establishes a solid foundation of knowledge and instills conceptual ties across its classes. Ultimately, I was more than well prepared for my internship.”
While Szepieniec did not find her calling as a researcher at the 2019 NIH summer internship program, she intends to apply that knowledge and experience to better understand, support and implement research findings during a medical career as a doctor.
Julia’s UIU experience
Initially interested in UIU for its golf program, Julia Szepieniec was quickly intrigued by the sense of community during her first visit to Fayette Campus. The small class sizes, eight-week sessions and supportive faculty also set UIU apart in her college selection process.
“I feel my educational experience at Upper Iowa was extremely well-rounded,” said Szepieniec. “I was challenged to get out of my comfort zone, think critically, further develop my time management skills and invest in leadership opportunities. Due to my UIU experience, I feel well-prepared to succeed in my future educational endeavors and contributions to society.”
Szepieniec entered UIU in 2016 with a Trustee Scholarship, contributing $18,000 in institutional aid annually toward her education. This merit scholarship is funded in part by unrestricted gifts to the University. In addition, Julia has been named the recipient of the Mrs. Ina Johnson Memorial Scholarship, Dr. J.D. Parker and Nellie K. Parker Scholarship and Dr. Austin J. Goldsmith Book Scholarship. A member of the Peacock women’s golf team, she is a two-time NSIC All-Academic honoree.
“UIU has a phenomenal network of alumni and community members,” Szepieniec said. “Their support is evident in the scholarship awards that are provided to current students. I am incredibly grateful for their investment in my education. It is an everlasting gift, and I cannot thank them enough for believing in the capabilities and aspirations of our students.”
(Editor’s note: Julia’s story can also be read in the Fiscal Year-End Donor Report found in the 2020 Winter Bridge magazine.)