It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 (!) years since 1992 when I last walked the halls of Chicago Christian High School. Despite the years, and the miles between Palos Heights and my current position as an Immunology professor in Baltimore, Maryland, the lessons I learned and the life-long friends I made at CCHS continue to impact my life. My interest in Immunology was set in motion in science classes with Mr. John Meyer and Mr. Kroon (I smile thinking about Mr. Kroon’s stuffed mole, ‘Digger’ each time I review molar calculations with students in my laboratory!) While perhaps not as obvious of a link, writing skills honed in English classes with Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Gary Meyer, and Mrs. Vanden Bosch have been critical for science communication and have been my lifeline for obtaining all-important grant funding. Besides my classes, I was involved in a variety of activities at CCHS including cross country and track (where I probably sharpened my communication skills better than I did my running skills—but had a lot of fun and made some good memories—thanks for your patience, Mr. Kwasteniet!), choir, newspaper, yearbook, and NHS.
After CCHS, I attended Calvin as a biology major, intending to pursue a career in physical therapy. It wasn’t until May of my senior year, while deciding between graduate schools, that I realized my heart just wasn’t in it. I will forever be grateful to my parents, Ben and Linda Dykstra (also CCHS alumni) who told me that probably meant I shouldn’t enroll in a physical therapy program—even if that meant I would have no idea what I’d be doing when I graduated from college later that month! As a parent now, I’m a bit in awe of how calm they were at the time! Thankfully, I had professors at Calvin who were supportive and creative and who hired me as a laboratory assistant for the year. It was there I fell in love with biomedical research—with the excitement of discovery and with the problem-solving and new questions that arise when experiments yield unexpected results or no results at all.
I went on and earned my Ph.D. in Immunology at Northwestern University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. I am now a professor at Towson University, just outside of Baltimore, where I live with my husband, Greg (a Biochemist at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine) and our children, Tessa (17) and Everett (12). In my work, my passion lies in engaging students in biomedical research. Besides training students in my research laboratory, which focuses on the initiation of immune signaling responses and the mechanisms used by pathogens to evade these responses, I have developed a course-based undergraduate research experience as a way to engage students who might not have the opportunity outside of class time to become involved in research. Along with a colleague, I am also the co-director of two NIH-funded Bridges programs aimed at increasing the representation of students from diverse backgrounds in the biomedical sciences. One program focuses on facilitating the transfer of STEM students from community colleges to Towson, and the second aims to promote the transition of students from underrepresented groups from Towson’s masters’ program to biomedical Ph.D. programs. We’re currently in the middle of interview season, and we’re so excited that our masters’ students in the program this year already have earned acceptance at top Ph.D. programs such as those at Harvard and Johns Hopkins!
When I reflect back on my time at CCHS, I can see how the values emphasized there—particularly those of community and servant leadership—permeate what I do. Whether it be in the relationships I build with students and colleagues, the emphasis on inclusion, equity and justice I strive to promote in my classroom and laboratory, or the ways in which I approach the field of Immunology and its relation to public health (particularly in the face of a global pandemic), these values shine through even after all these years.