For undergrad, research reveals path forward

// Biomedical Engineering

Photo of BME design team

As a senior, Laura Guerrero (second from left) and team members (from left) Anna Keller, Samuel Moss and Brittany Russell worked on a cell culture system for expanded testing of targeted cancer treatments as part of the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s design curriculum.

Growing up, Laura Guerrero appreciated the seemingly definitive nature of math and science. Formulas produced answers.

But once she entered the research lab, she discovered science was often anything but black and white—an initially frustrating lesson she’s since grown to treasure.

“I realized that delving into and identifying the unknowns of a system is not only part of science, but one of the parts that I find most rewarding and exciting,” says the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering graduate, who finished her bachelor’s degree in December 2020.

Photo of Laura Guerrero
Laura Guerrero

Guerrero is preparing for graduate school at Northwestern University after building her research skills as part of Assistant Professor Megan McClean’s lab for nearly three years. She recently received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support her PhD studies in chemical and biological engineering and is eyeing a career in the biotech industry. She also plans on making STEM outreach and mentorship—something she’s both benefitted from and paid forward—a lifelong service commitment.

“She is very motivated and excited about research. I think that’s a key ingredient, especially for students who want to go on and do a PhD. She’s also pretty resilient,” says McClean. “The reality is it’s research, so you don’t know what the result is supposed to be. You don’t know if it’s going to work—you’re doing something new. And so having that resilience to roll with that and keep going is really important.”

As an undergrad, Guerrero displayed that kind of perseverance while taking on a challenging project in McClean’s lab: constructing a red-light-based optogenetic system to complement the group’s existing blue light system, allowing the team to control different light-activated cellular components in yeast at the same time. And rather than assisting a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, Guerrero led the effort over the span of multiple years—though she’s quick to credit her lab mentor, PhD student Neydis Moreno Morales, for providing support.

“Professor McClean’s lab really challenged me to become a more independent researcher,” says Guerrero. “It was much like an experience I would have in grad school. I feel like it was really valuable in providing me with what a real grad student experience is like in developing your project and working on it on your own time—and, of course, I had my grad student there to help me out along the way.”

Moreno and McClean are the latest in a series of mentors whom Guerrero says have been instrumental to her success. She’s still in touch with the graduate student she worked with in a research program at the University of Chicago as a high school student. That’s also where she met a UW-Madison biomedical engineering alumnus who encouraged her to apply to the university and consider BME as a major. Guerrero did, and a full tuition Chancellor’s Scholarship gave the southwest Chicago native the financial support to attend an out-of-state institution.

In her graduate studies, Guerrero plans to delve deeper into metabolic engineering, an area she worked in during a summer research experience at Northwestern in 2018. She’s intrigued by the possibilities bioengineering offers for converting complex carbon sources into more valuable chemicals that could prove useful in pharmaceuticals and other industries.

But she’s equally enthusiastic about mentoring younger STEM students. She worked as a residential counselor for high school students in the College of Engineering’s Engineering Summer Program (ESP) after her first year at UW-Madison and then as a STEM Immersion Leader in the WISCIENCE program at UW-Madison a year later. She’s still in touch with a handful of students she counseled during ESP, discussing their graduate school ambitions with them.

“Mentorship is lifelong,” she says. “It doesn’t end when you finish a class or a summer program.”

Author: Tom Ziemer