While most of her peers were undergraduate students, Elaina was climbing 20,000 foot peaks in South America, scuba diving in the Bahamas, backpacking the Australian outback, and traversing the globe in search of adventure. In the process, she gained a different education that provided life experience and exposure beyond comparison which instilled in her a strong sense of confidence and adaptability. Years later, when the time came to pursue an undergraduate degree, Elaina chose to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Biology due to her love of nature and her natural inquisitiveness. After undergrad, she says, “The only choice was Michigan.”
Elaina started her Ph.D. training in June of 2011. Her husband, a student at the time, transferred to Michigan’s College of Engineering to complete his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. He is a native of Traverse City, and fulfilled a childhood dream by coming to U-M. But their decision to land here was more than that. She says, “We chose U-M because of the strong support that Rackham provides to graduate students. Being a non-traditional student, I’m supporting my family (husband and two daughters) with my graduate stipend. When looking at support, both financial and social, Rackham stood out. All of the other grad programs that I considered were really unmatched. Rackham has provided well for us during our tenure at Michigan.”
Elaina’s fascination for the unknown led her to pursue undergraduate research as a sophomore. She began her research career in a molecular ecology lab but found her research passion in animal cell biology. “What fascinated me about cell biology were the many things that remain unknown. During my undergraduate cell biology class I would ask many questions, and the professor commonly answered ‘we don’t know how that works yet.’ This might be a disappointing answer for some students, but I was fascinated by the many questions that remain unanswered. I am constantly amazed by the multitude of events that are orchestrated with such precision inside each and every cell. I was hooked!” Elaina explains.
At Michigan, Elaina remained focused on understanding the cellular cytoskeletal system. She joined Dr. Ann Miller’s lab in January of 2012 to study cell division in animal cells. The Miller Lab studies the dynamic rearrangements that occur in animal epithelial tissues during cell division. Particularly, the molecular events that occur during the last stage of cell division, called cytokinesis. This is an important process to understand because cytokinesis failure can lead to tumor formation. Additionally, the Miller Lab is focused on understanding how cells within an epithelial tissue can undergo division while maintaining tight contacts with neighboring cells, and how defects in this can lead to tumor cell metastasis. These questions are clinically important because nearly 85-90% of all human tumors are carcinomas, which arise from epithelial tissues.
Elaina’s dissertation work is focused on understanding how a protein called MgcRacGAP, which was long thought to only function during cytokinesis, actually plays a dual role in regulating both cytokinesis and the integrity of cell-cell junctions in epithelial cells. Her work has contributed to this finding. Her work, along with work from others in the Miller Lab, is helping to further our fundamental understanding of how epithelial tissues are maintained and regulated, which is important for understanding normal tissue and the microenvironment of carcinomas.
Currently in her last year of graduate school, Elaina has set clear, measureable goals for her future: “I’m passionate about my science and I want to see it directly affect society. I see myself being able to do this best by pursuing a career in Industry, specifically in biotechnology or pharmaceuticals. I want to see my science translated into medicine or medical devices. We need to strengthen the partnerships between academics and industry – this skill set is a great fit for me.”
Everyone in her family is in school. Besides her husband who is finishing his degree this December, their two children are in elementary school. She says of her first two years of grad school, “Everyone was doing homework all of the time. We would have conversations with our kids about biology, physics, and math. My husband and I enjoy teaching our kids what we’re learning at U-M. My husband was on the U-M hybrid car team and he could share that with our kids, and I have taught them about cell biology and how to use microscopes. They’ve been able to learn and understand science in a way that is really unique.”
As a busy mom, Elaina says, “One of the most valuable skills that I have learned being a grad student and a mom is extreme time management techniques. At times it’s been tough. Since my husband is a student as well, we struggle sometimes to juggle everything. We strive to provide a normal and positive home environment for our kids, while also staying at the top of our respective classes at U-M. One way I do this is to compartmentalize – when I am in lab, I focus deeply on my work; when I am at home, I am mom and I do family things. Then when the kids go to bed, I turn the ‘student and scientist’ back on and work more. I have a great family, an awesome lab group, and a wonderful and supportive PI. I couldn’t do it without their support and understanding.”
Her non-traditional path began at an early age. She recalls, “My mom sent me on a 30 day backpacking trip when I was 15 and it changed my direction and outlook on life. The momentum from that experience helped set my path. I learned how to set a goal, to identify all the steps between me and that goal, then to work hard to achieve each step and accomplish the goal. With this approach, I found that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to; be it the summit of a high altitude mountain or a prestigious National Fellowship, hard work and a clear vision of success always win.” Since then, she’s developed and accomplished many goals to get where she is today. One of them was to stand apart from the crowd in graduate school, something she’s done amazingly well as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, A Rackham Predoctoral Fellow, a Journal of Cell Science Travelling Fellow, a Rackham Merit Fellow, and as a first-author published scientist.
While her adventurous youth is behind her, Elaina and her family make the most of their downtime when they can: “summer vacations are adventure vacations for us. Last year we all backpacked in Shenandoah National Park, this year it is backpacking and kayaking in the Upper Peninsula.” These trips are a continuation of Elaina’s journey – both in terms of academics and personal growth. She says that she and her husband wouldn’t have changed a thing about the unique course they’ve charted. “We’ve both become better scientists because we choose this non-traditional path, life experience is key.” She says that Rackham has been a tremendous resource and has been very supportive for her. Elaina is planning to defend her dissertation in early 2016, and by her nature, has set lofty goals for her future. She wants to be a scientific leader and is currently seeking positions in industry. She says that her training here at Michigan, and specifically the mentorship from her PI, Dr. Ann Miller, have prepared her well. She says, “I am Rackham, and I am excited for what my future holds!”