Biotechnology major Amanda Luke ’20 has been fascinated by science since fifth grade. “But to actually be applying it outside of the lecture hall has been an awesome experience,” she says. Luke’s road to becoming an active member of a science lab on campus didn’t begin until her junior year. It was her involvement with the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Team that led to a relationship with her principal investigator, professor and interim chair of the biology department, Melissa Pepling.
Dean’s Team Leads to Faculty Connection
The Dean’s Team is a group of student volunteers who perform a variety of roles throughout the academic year for the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Luke joined the team in summer 2018. Among their responsibilities are helping to recruit incoming Arts and Sciences students and assisting with their transition, including mentoring them throughout their first year.
Dean’s Team students can also opt to assist faculty members who lead first-year forum courses. When Luke received the list of faculty members that were leading the course, she saw Melissa Pepling, whose research she had been reading about over the summer. Luke saw her opportunity and immediately reached out to her Dean’s Team advisor asking to be paired with Pepling. “I realized I was interested in cell and molecular biology and also in women’s health,” Luke says. “Her lab was the perfect combination.”
Already a participant in the Renée Crown University Honors Program, Luke is always looking to test herself academically. “I've really enjoyed a lot of my honors courses,” she says. “I'm in a science and philosophy course right now with professors, and former Deans of the College of Arts and Sciences, Cathryn Newton and Sam Gorovitz. They’re tough and challenging, but I've learned a lot.”
In addition to honors coursework, honors students must also complete a thesis. Luke knew she was interested in conducting research as an undergraduate. After sending an email asking to be paired with Pepling, Luke got to work building a connection. “I was kind of like her assistant, not really a teaching assistant, but like her helper,” Luke says. “I got to know her and then go to her lab, and essentially our relationship blossomed.”
Diversifying Her College Experience
After starting in the Pepling Lab , Luke took a slight detour and seized the opportunity to study abroad in Madrid last spring. She loved the experience and used her time to complete requirements for a minor in Spanish. “I was with a host family,” Luke says. “Even though I speak the language, it was challenging at times, just for cultural differences and things like that. But it was an awesome experience to be living with them. Kind of stepping outside of my comfort zone, taking the Metro every day to class.”
Coincidentally, Pepling visited Madrid in 2019 to learn about how more science courses will be implemented there in the future. This development will make it more feasible for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students like Luke to go abroad. “Everyone should be able to have that experience,” Luke says. “I enjoyed diversifying my schedule throughout the four years even though foreign language never overlapped with any of my science courses.”
Finding Campus Resources
Since returning to the United States, Luke has embraced her role as a researcher. This past summer, she received funding from several sources that supported her research, including the Biology Department Research Grant and Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE). In addition, she was one of the first students to earn an academic year grant through the newly established Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE.) The SOURCE offers research grants of up to $5,000 to cover such expenses as supplies, materials, travel or conference fees. Luke’s research proposal received high rankings from the faculty reviewers. “The funding allowed me to stay on campus,” Luke says.
Luke now researches how insulin affects the development of egg cells. “It’s particularly significant for women with diabetes because they have more difficulty getting pregnant and other reproduction-related issues,” Luke explains. She is incredibly excited to be working on this research and realizes it might have been a missed opportunity without the Dean’s Team. “I’m really grateful for that,” Luke says. “And I think that ties back to something pretty awesome about Syracuse University—the different resources and opportunities open to students, if you so choose to look for them and get involved.”
In January, Luke participated in a service trip to Guatemala, where she worked with residents and shadowed physicians in medical consultations. The trip fit into Luke’s overall preference for hands-on experiences. “For me, what’s most exciting is actually doing the bench work in my lab. I find the science interesting” she says.
This semester is going well for Luke. She’s received research funding from the Renée Crown University Honors program and won an award for her research. Luke started taking graduate courses. She’s elected to remain at Syracuse next year to earn a master’s degree in biotechnology. That will enable her to continue with her research in the Pepling Lab. Pepling says she is impressed with Luke’s versatility. Luke recently shadowed a graduate student in the lab to learn a very difficult technique, and was able to adapt when the direction of her project changed. “Amanda has really dedicated herself to her lab project and has been very proactive about getting advice from me regarding her research,” says Pepling. “I am very pleased that she will continue in the lab after graduating.” This summer, she’s been invited to attend the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) conference in Ottawa, Canada. She hopes the master’s program will help her clarify her career goals. But she’s excited about research, so that’s why she decided to stick around. “If you’re coming here enthused, if you’re interested in research of any kind, get involved,” she says. “You don't know how much it’s going to benefit you and you don’t know what interests it could spark.”