Abby Leistra: Goldwater Scholar

Photo courtesy calvin.edu
Photo courtesy calvin.edu

Abby Leistra will be back in the lab this summer for her third consecutive year working with Professor Sinniah’s research group on cancer treatments. Now a junior double major in chemical engineering and biochemistry, Leistra is the recipient of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship recognizes involvement in research. “It is arguably the most prestigious national award given to undergraduates in science and engineering,” said chemistry professor Carolyn Anderson who works with Calvin applicants for the Goldwater Scholarship.

Applicants must write a scientific proposal for “a research project completed and how it benefits the community or people as a whole,” explained Leistra. For Leistra, this meant outlining the research project she became involved in two years ago.

Leistra joined Professor Sinniah’s research group in the summer of 2012 and will continue working on the project in its fifth summer researching cancer treatments.

“We’re looking at a better way to treat certain types of cancer. Lots of cancer therapies have high toxicities for lots of cells. They don’t just kill cancer cells, they kill healthy cells so there are lots of side effects like hair loss and other things associated with chemotherapy,” explained Leistra. “We’re trying to develop a way to target the drug towards the cancer cell and limit side effects.”

One major development for the research project this summer will be the use of live cells for the research. “The basic concept is we’re trying to design a targeting system for a chemotherapy drug and investigating how it interacts with the receptor on the cancer cell. This summer we’re looking at how the targeting agent interacts with the live cell. It’s exciting because we’re getting that much closer to a real system,” said Leistra.

“I’m looking forward to be able to dive more in depth with it. Being able to do the same project for three years allows me to become more in detail with it,” said Leistra about her upcoming summer. Leistra will work with three other students on the project.

For Leistra, the research project fits into her passions and career plans. “It intersects with my passion for biochemistry and also for serving people; helping someone grow more fully in their image of God in a lot of ways,” said Leistra. “I’m able to pursue my passion for how the body works in conjunction with caring for it.”

The application process for a Goldwater Scholarship is quite extensive. Schools can only nominate four students from biochemistry, chemistry, engineering, math or computer science. Selected students are asked to fill out an in-house application. A Calvin committee then chooses and recommends four to apply nationally. In addition to Leistra, two other Calvin students received Goldwater honorable mention status: senior mathematics and chemistry double major Andrea Bootsma and junior mathematics major Sam Auyeung.

“Abby’s selection as a Goldwater Fellow speaks to not only her current achievements, which are many, but also to her obvious future potential,” said Anderson. “Goldwater Fellows are students that the selection committee believe have the potential to change the face of science; Abby absolutely fits this description.”

Leistra, Calvin’s 15th Goldwater Scholar, says the excellent record of Calvin students in the Goldwater Scholarship program is “a marker of how well Calvin has done with undergraduate research and how well they get students involved and coach them through the process. It’s a testament to the investment in students.”

The strength of the science programs at Calvin and the opportunities for research have made a large impact on Leistra. “I’ve found a really good spot to be in, between the engineering and biochemistry departments and communities,” said Leistra.

“I really felt that God was calling me here,” she stated about Calvin.

Leistra will be graduating in May 2015 and plans on joining a graduate school program for medical chemistry research in order to continue looking at better and more efficient ways to treat disease.

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