GCU student researcher accepted to top grad school

May 26, 2021 / by / 0 Comment

Madison Strong was the first Grand Canyon University student to join La Belle Lab, doing research alongside Biomedical Engineering Professor Dr. Jeff La Belle. Her research background helped her get into her dream grad school, Northwestern University.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Madison Strong is not the wait-on-opportunity type. The Grand Canyon University alumna and student researcher doesn’t just hope things will happen.

She makes them happen.

That verve is likely one reason why she’s heading to her dream graduate school, Northwestern University, where she was accepted recently into the biomedical engineering Ph.D. program.

Strong, on a recent visit to Chicago and Northwestern University, is interested in spinal cord injuries and how to regenerate neural tissue.

“I think I wanted to go there ever since my sophomore year of undergraduate school. I ALWAYS wanted to live in Chicago. … It’s crazy that I’m actually going,” said Strong, who graduated in the spring with bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering and biochemistry/molecular biology.

She said what seemed to impress the graduate school faculty and staff who interviewed her is that she is a self-starter.

“I sought out most of the opportunities that I got,” said Strong from California, where she was spending some of her summer break. “I had to go and find them and tailor them to what I want to do.”

The same went for her undergraduate years at GCU, the school she fell in love with after a Discover GCU trip and the college she was determined to attend long before she chose a major.

“I had no idea,” she said of what she would be studying once she got to GCU. “I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s just make one decision and then we’ll move on to the next.’”

For Strong, that meant a jaunt to the library of her small Lutheran high school in Wisconsin, where she ferreted out a book about careers and started to flip through the pages.

“The one thing out of the entire book that I thought was interesting was chemical engineering. ‘Oh, that would be kind of cool to do!’ And then I looked at GCU and their programs, and they didn’t have chemical engineering. I thought, ‘Well, you know what? Biomedical engineering.’

“I didn’t know what it was. It sounded science-y. It sounded like there’s going to be math, so we’ll just go with that.”

Biomedical engineering, as it turns out, wasn’t at all what Strong expected it to be.

Luckily, “I just fell in love with it after the first year.”

And she fell in love with research, too.

She dabbled with various Research and Design Program projects in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, but one of the first big projects she assisted with was creating a hatch box to help in the conservation efforts for pygmy and Western burrowing owls. It was part of the Desert Owl Population Improvement Project.

Along with fellow student researchers, Strong (left) speaks about building hatch boxes for desert owls at GCU’s Undergraduate Learning Community & Research Symposium in 2018.

She fell into that first big research project by happenstance. She was working as a lab assistant in the college and was having lunch with her boss when Rachel Pikstein, a professor in the Biology department, stopped by and started talking to her boss about the owl project, Wild at Heart raptor rescue and all the needs the organization had.

“They needed engineers and scientists to find solutions, so me and my two other co-workers who were also student workers, we all kind of looked at each other. We said, ‘We want to do that! That would be so cool to start actually doing research and start helping a local (wildlife) sanctuary,'” Strong said of the project, which would be revived two years later by a second group of student researchers in Pikstein Lab who did a redesign. 

She also delved into work as an electrochemistry engineering tech lead for La Belle Lab.

As is her modus operandi, Strong didn’t wait for opportunity to find her.

“I’d worked at the engineering labs for two years, so the year after my junior year, I heard that (Dr.) Jeff La Belle was coming to campus and he was going to be a researcher,” Strong said.

She made it a point to introduce herself and became the first student from GCU to join his lab. For two years, she worked alongside him  – the biomedical engineering professor is known for his diabetes research.

Her time with La Belle Lab culminated with a paper she co-authored being published in December by Biosensors & Bioelectronics titled “Faradaic Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy for Enhanced Analyte Detection in Diagnostics.” She was listed as the first author, or lead student, on the project.

The paper summarizes recent advancements using an electrochemical technique called Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy to detect biological molecules. The technique is used to measure the amounts of pathogens in food, biomarkers for cardiovascular disease and measuring the amount of insulin in a blood sample, “which is what we were working on in Dr. La Belle’s lab,” Strong said. 

“Madi joined the lab just about as soon as I got here,” said La Belle. “She found us, asked what we did and if there was a way she could join us. I immediately said yes. It’s that innate desire to get involved, and not being afraid to ask questions, that triggered me to say sure.”

For an undergraduate to already have delved into research and be a published researcher impressed many of the 14 graduate schools to which she applied.

“Having that publication was a first step in the right direction,” she said of her dream of getting accepted into Northwestern.

She also completed a remote internship with Colombia’s AOXLAB, which performs laboratory analysis on foods. She worked alongside the lead of research and development to write two project proposals that focused on extracting beneficial biomolecules in cocoa bean shells and orange peels for use in other applications. 

“It is extremely difficult to get accepted (to Northwestern). … You can only imagine the caliber of people going there,” said Strong, who this year did not have to take the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, required for admission to graduate programs, because of COVID-19.

So for three months, she worked on her personal statement, having her professors look over her statement again and again. She also hoped she did all she could academically at GCU, whose bachelor’s degree program in biomedical engineering is relatively new (it was launched in 2015 and was accredited by ABET last year). 

Strong, in the lab with fellow GCU biomedical engineering grad Jeffrey Richards, was a student worker in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology labs

La Belle said if students are motivated, like Strong is, and get involved in research projects, internships and the like, they can go far.

“We have a very good starting place for people who want to work in industry (or start one), go on to med school or grad school,” he said.

According to Strong, Northwestern invited just 7% of those who applied to the biomedical engineering Ph.D. program to a virtual recruitment event in February.

“It was an honor to even get invited to that,” said Strong, who also was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate school and the University of Minnesota.

She said in skimming through all the research underway at Northwestern, she found almost a dozen researchers with whom she’d be thrilled to work.

She’s speaking now to a potential advisor, is driving to Chicago this week, will start getting trained in Northwestern’s lab in mid-June and will begin her Ph.D. program in September.

She wants to focus, she said, on making polymers for neuron tissue regeneration: “How can we tailor materials to enhance cells to grow and build?” she asked. “I’m really interested in spinal cord injuries and how we can regenerate neural tissues.”

In the end, she wants to serve her fellow man.

“I think that’s why I love the field of tissue engineering in genetics, because there are so many ways to help people.”

Guaranteed, she won’t wait for things to happen once she gets to Northwestern, just like she did at GCU.

She’ll continue to make things happen.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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