Finding the path to Sanford Research

SPUR program helped change Michelle Carlson's outlook on lab work

Michelle Carlson wears a lab coat, goggles and gloves while working in the SPUR program lab at Sanford Research.

If you asked Michelle Carlson if she wanted to be a researcher, “yes” may not have been her first answer.

“I never thought I would do research because I love being with people and I thought I would be stuck in a lab,” she said.

However, after being in the SPUR program at Sanford Research in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Carlson realized that she felt at home in the lab. “It feels like a family in that respect because everyone is so friendly. I am free to ask many questions which is really helpful coming from not a lot of experience in research.”

SPUR, the Sanford Program for Undergraduate Research, is a 10-week summer program for undergraduate students to conduct laboratory research.

Discovering a new path

Originally from Willmar, Minnesota, Carlson decided to go to the University of Dallas to study biological sciences on the pre-medicine track. After courses in organic chemistry and ethology, she changed her plans. It was in these courses that she learned she loved spending time in the lab and designing experiments.

“I love understanding small chemical reactions that cause big things to happen in an organism,” she said.

Carlson now studies biology with a concentration in Christian contemplative tradition.

When searching for a research program, she found Dr. Michelle Baack’s Lab. This lab focuses on the developmental origins of health and disease, which intrigued Carlson. She would be able to research how seemingly small events during a baby’s development can affect lifelong changes.

Mother-baby connection

Carlson is currently working on a project researching lipid metabolism from mother to fetus through the placenta. Specifically, she is looking at how fetal sex may play a role in determining the amount of fuel the fetus receives. This summer, she is hoping to find the different protein expression that causes the varied amounts of lipids between males and females.

“It has been awesome to be in the lab and to do these procedures to really understand what research is all about,” she said.

She has also gained basic, scientific laboratory skills and learned how to develop a research question.

Carlson appreciates the supplemental activities Sanford Research provides SPUR students. In addition to labs, she has participated in a GRE prep course and lectures about scientific professionalism.

Looking to the future

This summer has helped Carlson determine her plans for graduate school. She is planning on applying to graduate schools to study reproductive endocrinology. This is the study of how hormones impact the ability to reproduce.

In the future, Carlson wants to help reaffirm the beauty of women through science. Women have a number of hormones that are constantly changing with their cycles, and many do not realize this. She hopes to change this way of thinking by finding different ways of approaching women.

Carlson wants to study reproductive endocrinology because many couples today struggle with infertility. These men and women may be given generic treatments that don’t solve their underlying fertility problems.

“I want to dive into that and heal people holistically. Each human is different and I think we need to treat them as such and give them the dignity they deserve.”

A major lesson Carlson learned through her Sanford Research experience was saying “yes” to the opportunities and challenges presented to her.

“Just jump out of your comfort zone and see where it takes you. Being thrown in headfirst and having that fear and scariness really teaches us to grow,” she said.

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Posted In Faces of Sanford Health, Research

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