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Emily Steffke: Piecing it all together

Sept. 6, 2017

Emily Steffke, from Beal City, Michigan, is a junior majoring in neuroscience and English. She is a College of Natural Science Deans Research Scholar and a member of the Honors College.

When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ve usually answered, “I have no idea.” But that isn’t necessarily true — A better answer is, “I have too many ideas — there are too many things I’m interested in to ever make a decision!”

When I came to MSU, my plan was to cover as wide a breadth of courses as I could, so that when I was forced to make a decision (in the far-off future, I hoped), I would be covered. Neuroscience intrigued me as an interdisciplinary major. Within the cognitive concentration, I would have biology, chemistry, pharmacology and physics covered, along with a healthy dose of psychology and philosophy.

I also chose to double major in English. I’d always loved it in high school and figured that it would basically cover me for history, sociology, politics, anthropology, art and global studies. Then I rounded it all out with a music minor, because I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to learn piano from the faculty in the College of Music, and because part of me will always want to be a band director — or at least a pianist on the side.

At the end of my freshman year, I had a variety of classes and experiences under my belt, but I still felt lost, and I couldn’t pinpoint a cohesive potential career that would combine all of my interests. While I was unexpectedly fascinated by my molecular biology class, I found my cognitive psychology class left too many things without a satisfying, tangible explanation. I even met with an Honors College adviser to discuss the possibility of adding some third major — “Could I do one in architecture?” —as if adding more options would solve anything.

That summer, I did a research internship at the National Institute of Mental Health right outside of Washington, D.C., studying schizophrenia, Huntington’s and critical brain dynamics. Working full-time in a cutting-edge research environment was an eye-opening experience. I learned tons of new lab techniques, and even learned to perform complicated cranial window implantation surgeries on mice, which allowed us to record movies of the activity of groups of neurons by looking through a literal window into their brains! I realized investigating the cellular and microbiological side of neurological disorders was something I was truly passionate about.

But what about my love for Chopin’s compositions, St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and Saunders’ short stories?

It all clicked during the last two weeks of my internship, when I began shadowing a neuro-oncologist who treated patients on clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, and also ran a research lab in which he investigated the microscopic underpinnings and potential therapies for the tumors he was seeing in his patients.

For me, it was a job that encompassed it all — investigating and theorizing in the lab, communicating with patients and colleagues, considering the many facets of a person’s life to effectively propose the best treatments, and even nonverbal expression of emotion and empathy. The skills he used on a regular basis were not solely neuroscience-focused, but deeply humanities-influenced. I realized I wanted a job that relies on the intricacies and impact of human interaction, but also produces tangible, data-driven results.

I now aspire to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. and a career as a physician-researcher — perhaps in neuro-oncology.

I currently work in the research labs of A.J. Robison and Michelle Mazei-Robison who are both assistant professors in MSU’s Department of Physiology. My research project is really combining A.J’s research which focuses on combining learning and memory in the hippocampus and on drug addiction; and Michelle’s lab, which is really focused on this SGK1 protein. It’s been really awesome to be able to do research as an undergraduate and to work with two amazing researchers – double the mentors, double the experience!

Hopefully, just as I’ve pieced together my wide array of interests and mismatched majors, my ability to integrate knowledge gained and problems faced in both clinical and research settings will produce meaningful results and positively impact patients’ lives.