Lizeth Tamayo ’16 arrived at Augustana College with a clear direction in mind. She declared a major in pre-medicine with plans to become a doctor. It made sense, she thought, to make the most of a full scholarship and a proven ability in the sciences. Her feelings started to change, however, after some heartfelt talks with Dr. Pareena Lawrence, dean of the college.
“She asked me if I had ever thought about getting my Ph.D.,” Tamayo said. “With a Ph.D., I could work in the field that I choose, but I could also come back and teach, and give back what I learn to new students.”
In Tamayo, Dr. Lawrence saw a talented and determined young woman, a first-generation college student who was new to the maze of higher education, just as Lawrence herself had been.
“In many ways she reminded me of myself three decades ago, unaware of the opportunities that were out there and without a mentor to guide my path,” Dr. Lawrence said. “I’m grateful I was able to have conversations with Lizeth, to find out more about her dreams and aspirations and interests. I was privileged to help guide her, and most importantly, connect her to resources and opportunities that I never had.”
While she’s still thinking about becoming a doctor, Tamayo said she is looking at a much broader landscape with more opportunities than she saw before. Her plans now include a master’s in the rapidly expanding field of public health, and beyond that, a Ph.D. in a related field such as epidemiology, or medical school for an M.D.
In either case, she has decided she wants to conduct research to combat chronic diseases. And she is already honing her skills in securing funding for her own research.
“I realized that, instead of treating people who were already sick, I wanted to inform people about health issues before they get sick,” Tamayo said. “I also discovered I like to do research, especially revolving around epidemiology and public health, and I realized this was something I really wanted to do.”
A group of mentors
She attributes her turns in perspective to mentoring, the building of relationships with faculty that guide and inform the experiences of many Augustana students. In addition to Dr. Lawrence, Tamayo’s list of mentors includes her French professor, Dr. Chadia Chambers-Samadi, and her chemistry professor, Dr. Pamela Trotter, whom she sees almost every day.
Tamayo came to Augustana as the recipient of a highly prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, a full scholarship to the school of her choosing, and one that continues all the way through her doctoral degree if she stays within certain disciplines, including science. The highly competitive awards come through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to students of color with high academic and leadership potential. Tamayo is Peruvian-American.
With access to almost any college, including Ivy League schools, Tamayo chose Augustana for two reasons. She could remain close to home near Rockford, Ill., and she was impressed by the personal attention she received from Augustana staff, beginning with her first visit.
“They made Augustana feel like home,” she said. “I just didn’t think I would grow as much as a person at some of the other schools.”
An introduction to undergraduate research grew out of a meeting with Dr. Lawrence. After seeing Tamayo’s interests, Dr. Lawrence suggested she look into Dr. Trotter’s lab. Tamayo did, and was hooked.
In April, she attended the national Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, alongside Dr. Trotter and one of her fellow research assistants, Paige Pierson ’16. As one of Dr. Trotter’s research assistants, Tamayo described her role in the project to explore the metabolism of yeast cells as a vehicle to understand genetic influences on human metabolism, and potential breakthroughs in combatting diabetes and obesity. In addition, with Dr. Trotter as her guide, Tamayo has begun her own research with yeast cells.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “It’s a very easy organism to work with. We can grow them overnight and manipulate the genes, with none of the ethical issues that might arise. Also, because many cellular functions of yeast are analogous to that of humans, we are able to study different kinds of diseases through mutations in yeast and then connect the finding back to us.”
Tamayo also is raising her own money to help, a valuable skill for any research scientist. She secured a grant award that helps her pay for supplies, travel to conferences, and a stipend for time she spends in the lab. The grant opportunity came through an alliance of 16 colleges and universities across the Midwest that support minority participation in science research with help from the National Science Foundation. Augustana is the only college in Illinois to receive the funding.
“I’ve changed a lot, especially career-wise,” Tamayo said. “I’ve become a lot more open-minded, a lot more informed about different events in the U.S. and around the world. I’ve grown as a student, and I’ve grown a lot as a person as well.”
For Augustana faculty who thrive on their relationships with students, seeing that kind of growth is perhaps the biggest reward of the job.
“Most of my research students are still in contact with me,” Dr. Trotter said. “Lizeth is a wonderful young lady, and I think she’s going to go a long way. I just hope she remembers me.”