Summer job: Researching disease and family history
Stephanie Tutak, a junior biology major in the College of Natural Sciences, spent her summer helping researchers study the crippling disease tuberous sclerosis in Warsaw, Poland. What she found there was not only science research experience, but deep links to her past.
Scientists answer questions, and so it seemed only fitting that, as a student in the College of Natural Sciences, I step outside the 40 Acres and apply my book knowledge to try to find answers to problems of global significance. This summer, I traveled to the International Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Warsaw, Poland.
There, I was able to reprogram stem cells in the skin responsible for generating new connective tissue, called dermal fibroblasts, from patients with tuberous sclerosis and turn these cells into neurons. Essentially, my coursework in cell biology and vertebrate neurobiology classes prepared me to help study diseases like tuberous sclerosis that are marked by epilepsy, mental retardation and autism.
It turns out, however, that I also had questions the scientific method couldn’t answer.
As a current Longhorn and a future physician, I realized that before I could become successful at either, I must understand my own culture. Then and only then could I attempt to relate to my peers and eventual patients. So I left Texas alone with the Polish vocabulary of a two-year-old to assist in clinical trials dealing with tuberous sclerosis during the week and to discover clues about my family on the weekends. I am a fourth-generation Polish-American, and I left Texas determined to uncover the secrets that my great-grandfather left behind in his homeland.
I met distant relatives and learned about my Polish heritage. I visited the church where my great-grandfather worshipped and stood in the fields that he helped plow. I climbed a mountain at the borders of Slovakia, the Ukraine and Poland, and watched Spain take on Italy during the Euro 2012 soccer championship. I made lasting memories as I represented my family, my country and my university. While studying at UT, I bleed orange, but it wasn’t until leaving the 40 Acres that I understood what it meant to LIVE orange.