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20 High Achieving BVU Science Seniors Ready for the Next Challenge

20 High Achieving BVU Science Seniors Ready for the Next Challenge

20 High Achieving BVU Science Seniors Ready for the Next Challenge

In the fall of 2009, 20 first-year students started their academic careers together at Buena Vista University.

Today, all of those students are concluding their undergraduate education and will walk across the stage at Commencement on May 25 to be awarded their degrees.

Their credentials are impressive: All were Deans Fellows, a BVU program that honors first-year students who were outstanding scholars and leaders in high school. All but one are biology majors. Today, their group average cumulative GPA exceeds 3.6 on a 4.0 scale.

Several have already been accepted to professional schools — dentistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, optometry, physician assistant and physical therapy programs. Others will begin master's or doctoral track programs in zoology, microbiology and molecular biology. Post-graduation plans are pending for some who are looking at options for careers in the health care professions and research.

Besides their passion for science, what linked these students from the outset is that they were all in the same First Year Seminar (FYS) class, "The Bones and Muscles of Society." FYS was a first-year experience program designed to help BVU students make a successful transition from high school to college by grouping them into "learning communities" on the basis of their academic interests and abilities. Since then, what is now called University Seminar has been restructured to create classes with students representing a cross-section of majors and academic potential.

Dr. James Hampton, professor of biology, who was their FYS instructor and the faculty advisor for 16 of the 20 students all four years, says "These are all serious students and their level of achievement is pretty impressive. In addition to FYS, the learning community included taking Principles of Biology together and for many of them a common chemistry course. I feel the students have been a factor in each other's success."

"They cooperate with each other, there is a little friendly competition among them and many of them became fast friends, " he says. "They are like a sports team and they get together to ‘practice' on Friday and Saturday nights by studying in the science center."

One of the students, Serena Geisinger, a biology major from Lawton, believes the collegial relationship among the students started with their First Year Seminar experience. "I don't think we knew the extent of the talent within the group until much later in our college careers. We knew we could be each other's support system, and that has made all of the difference. Personally, I study every night with two of these classmates, and I know many others do the same."

"This group is composed of students who compete with themselves, rather than each other. We are kind of like cheerleaders for each other, "says Serena, who was selected as the female BVU Senior of the Year and will attend the University of Iowa College of Dentistry this fall.

Molly Urness, a biology major from Clarion who will begin the physician assistant program at Des Moines University on May 28, says, "I think many of us came to college after being successful high school students and that the support of both the faculty and our classmates really helped us to continue that success. We took an interest in what each other was doing, which really pushed us all along."

Cameron Matters, Humboldt, who graduated in December and is doing a sports medicine internship this semester at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, says "We have all worked extremely hard and understood the sacrifices we all made daily to be successful. On a Friday or Saturday night, you could find a group of us studying, rather than going out and that creates a special type of bond. Everyone wanted everyone else to succeed – that's rare." Cameron will begin medical school at Des Moines University this fall.

The curriculum for biology majors is highly challenging and demands excellence from the students, says Hampton. "As far as I can tell, our biology program is unique in that we have a carefully structured curriculum that requires every major to do research for all four years, " he explains. "Many schools offer undergraduate research, but typically only with seniors, and only with their best students. Because research is rigorous, those who stay in our program are outstanding students."

"In applying to medical, professional and graduate schools, when our students go for interviews they spend a significant amount of time talking about the research they did here, and that reflects well on them as confident and capable scientists, " he adds.

Jennifer Heim, a biology and environmental science double major from Watertown, S.D., says some of her best academic experiences at BVU have been presenting her research at conferences. At the conference of the International Society of Wetland Scientists, North Central Chapter, last fall she was the only undergraduate presenting research alongside graduate students. In June, Jennifer will begin graduate studies in zoology, with an aquatic toxicology focus, at Southern Illinois University.

BVU's biology program also differs from many other undergraduate biology programs in that students have access to the same type of scientific equipment used at major research institutions, notes Hampton. "The difference here is that our undergrads are not competing with postdoctoral fellows, graduate students or lab techs to use the equipment. There is nothing that stands between our students and cutting-edge equipment except time and imagination."

Colton Webber's experience provides one example of the level of dedication these students have demonstrated. He is an athletic training major from Turnerville, Ga., who decided the second semester of his junior year that he wanted to become a physician. "A medical internship in Georgia in 2012 made me realize that a career in athletic training would not fully satisfy my thirst for knowledge, as well as my need to serve others, " he explains.

He had his work cut out for him. To be able to graduate on time and also meet the undergraduate academic requirements for medical schools, Colton worked with a team of science faculty to plan an intense regimen of courses (with labs) in biology, physics, organic chemistry, general chemistry and independent study in introductory biochemistry — a total of 31credit hours. Over the next 1 ½ years, he completed those courses in addition to fulfilling requirements for his athletic training major and BVU's required general education courses.

Colton, who received his athletic training professional certification this month, scored well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in January, and will apply to medical schools in June. He plans to work as an athletic trainer until he is admitted to medical school.

Beyond their focus on their studies, most of the students have been involved in campus activities and several have been members of BVU's intercollegiate athletics teams, served on Student Senate, and were active in other student organizations. They have done a variety of volunteer work either as individuals or through campus organizations. Several have also traveled internationally on BVU travel courses, as well as for internships, with destinations as varied as Cuba, Kenya, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, China, and India.

Hampton recalls that in their First-Year Seminar in 2009, one of the class exercises prepared by Carol Lytle, director of career services, was to do a vision statement, in which the students talked about their professional goals and how they hoped to achieve them. "I saved those statements and sent them to the students earlier this year. The students commented on the naiveté of some aspects of the statements, but most of them were pretty close to where those students are at in their lives today."

"Commencement is a bittersweet time for me, " says Hampton. "I've seen these students grow and feel a warm, personal connection to all of them. It makes me so proud that they are going off to do great things. We nurture students and help them grow into young professionals. I hope they will keep in touch so I can follow their productive lives."

Besides Hampton, other science faculty members who have worked with these students include: Drs. Richard Lampe, Brian Lenzmeier, Melinda Coogan, Heather York, Kristy McClellan, Thomas Bonagura, Melanie Hauser, Shawn Stone and Lisa Mellmann.

The 20 students in the group (all biology majors unless otherwise noted) and their post-graduation plans are:

  • Arinda Abbuhl, Red Oak, Creighton University School of Nursing.
  • Serena Geisinger, Lawton, University of Iowa College of Dentistry
  • Nicole Hanish, South Sioux City, Neb., applying to physician assistant and nursing programs
  • Jennifer Heim, biology and environmental science double major from Watertown, S.D., graduate program in zoology, with aquatic toxicology focus, at Southern Illinois University
  • Johnathan Hill, Webster City; post-graduation plans pending
  • Jacklyn Johnson, Litchfield, Minn., microbiology doctoral program at the University of Iowa
  • Allison Kirchgatter, Anthon, Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Tyler Lefeber, Harlan, Southern College of Optometry, Memphis, Tenn.
  • Cody Linville, Garner, post-graduation plans pending
  • Cameron Matters, Humboldt, Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine
  • Miguel Munoz-Gomez, biology and Spanish double major from Storm Lake, post-graduation plans pending
  • Whitney Nelson, Audubon, applying to medical school programs for the fall of 2014
  • Alex Paine, Laurel, Iowa, PhD program in molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado/ Boulder
  • Kelsey Shatto, Estherville, doctor of physical therapy program at Des Moines University
  • Andrew Smith, Exira, Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Grace Sullivan, a biology and psychology double major from Yankton, S.D., applying to PhD programs for the fall of 2014
  • Molly Urness, Clarion, physician assistant program at Des Moines University
  • Colton Webber, athletic training major from Turnerville, Ga., will work as an athletic trainer until accepted to medical school.
  • Brooke Wehle, Denison, Creighton University School of Dentistry
  • Gunnar Wyatt, Story City, physical therapy doctoral program at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.