Answering Real-World Questions

Chiamaka Isiguzo, Lakewood, Colorado Jay Demas, Associate Professor of Biology and Physics

St. Olaf’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program provides paid research experiences to more than 100 students in the natural and social sciences, arts, and humanities each year.  Other students receive research support from a variety of sources.

Chiamaka Isiguzo is a McNair Scholar, supported by a federal program designed to prepare first-generation and traditionally underrepresented students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities.

“The kinds of bench research we do at St. Olaf is perfect for McNair. It’s about gaining skills and building confidence,” says biology and physics professor Jay Demas. “Chiamaka has developed strong research skills and a real passion for the questions she explores.”

Chiamaka comes from a science-oriented family. Although her IB high school didn’t focus on scientific research, the summer after graduation she worked in a lab exploring immunosuppressants.  “Shadowing physicians and researchers and reading scientific papers was a great experience,” she says. “It showed me a direct connection between these scientific questions and human health.”

Early in her sophomore years, her McNair advisor suggested she apply for a position in Prof. Demas’ lab. “At that point I didn’t know anything about neuroscience, and the research group was mostly junior and senior biology and physics majors. I had to catch up quickly.

For the first year, she worked on a variety of projects, most of which involved developing and using basic research skills. The summer after her junior year, the group moved into a new lab, specially built to investigate non-visual retinal receptor cells.  “One experiment looks at retinal cells in turtles. Based on their behavior – at birth turtles move toward or away from light, even though they can’t fully ‘see.’  We suspect they have these non-visual receptors, but there hasn’t been any formal investigation to prove it,” says Chiamaka. “We’re breaking new ground.” It’s the kind of finding that will help better understand things like circadian rhythms or the negative impact of light pollution on the environment and human health.

“Great research needs a question that keeps you up at night,” says Demas. “Chiamaka has the combination of curiosity and discipline that will her a great doctor or strong researcher. It will be interesting to see if she chooses medical school, or a combined M.D.-Ph.D. program.  She will succeed at either one.”