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New Bio grad reflects on full College of Science career


Samantha Dawson

Samantha Dawson in one of Prof. Dennis Minchella's labs in Lilly Hall.

From snorkeling for conchs to dissect while studying abroad in the British West Indies to blending mouse “liver smoothies” for parasitic worm egg extraction for more research in Lilly Hall, Biological Sciences senior Samantha Dawson has had a full College of Science career.

The career started with a bombed biology test early in her first semester but the student from Warsaw, Indiana, quickly found determination to rise up through the ranks.

How she turned things around was part of her remarks at the Dec. 20 Fall Commencement Ceremony at Elliott Hall of Music. Dawson spoke for her fellow College of Science graduates – 210 in all -- that afternoon.

“I’m sure we all had a time when we felt so lost but we didn’t come to Purdue because it’s easy. It’s a challenge,” Dawson said. “Challenges make us who we are and set us apart from other schools.”

Dawson ended up getting a B in that freshman biology class. Four years later, she plans on earning a doctorate in physical therapy.

The lure of working with people compelled her to choose physical therapy. The choice further shows the diversity of a Biological Sciences degree, which has been know to prepare undergraduates for medical, dental, and veterinary school, teaching, law school, healthcare, graduate school, industry, and much, much more.

Like many undergraduates in the College of Science, Dawson participated in research.  She had three years of experience in the Lilly Hall laboratory of Biological Sciences Professor Dennis Minchella.  She started by keeping the parasites alive – mmmmm, mouse liver smoothies -- before helping graduate students with their genetic and population biology studies in the lab and field.

Dawson was encouraged to create her own research project within Minchella’s lab, which focuses on host-parasite interactions.  One of the parasites they study is Schistosoma mansoni, a trematode that affects the health of millions in impoverished nations. The flatworm is passed from freshwater snails to humans when they contact parasite larvae in the water while working, swimming, or washing their clothes in infected rivers. The World Health Organization considers schistosomiasis as the second most devastating parasitic disease on the planet, after malaria. Minchella’s lab strives to learn more about the parasite’s behavior in order to help treat and someday prevent schistosomiasis.

“I tried to see if these parasites had an affinity for healthy snails or snails that were already infected,” Dawson recalled. “Just to see if there was a pattern.”

“It took a year of planning, but my snails died before the experiment was complete,” she said.  Dawson learned a lesson, which she will impart to her fellow graduates as well.  “Dr. Minchella said ‘Well, that’s science.’ An experiment often doesn’t work as expected, and when it does work, that’s why it’s a big deal.”

The tropical marine conservation research came during a study abroad opportunity. Dawson helped in collecting conch specimens to monitor the health of the animals off the shores of South Caicos. The conchs are over-fished, and young conchs are monitored and off-limits. Dawson’s work strived to better age the large sea snails to help protect the younger members of the species.

Dawson’s sister Katherine Dawson went through the Bio program, too. She is now in veterinary school at University of Minnesota. Brother Lucas Dawson is getting his PhD in immunology from University of Pennsylvania after finishing his studies at Cornell University.

Following in her siblings’ science footsteps got her to West Lafayette but it was the high quality education and opportunities that got her to stay.

Dawson said she was thrilled to speak in front of her peers: Purdue’s newest graduates.

“It’s such an honor to speak at commencement. I still can’t believe it,” Dawson said. “Purdue is so special to me. … I fell in love with it after the first few weeks.”

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