A tradition of success: Madelyne Besack awarded grant

It has become a Simpson College tradition.

Every year, or so it seems, a Simpson student is awarded a Beta Beta Beta Research Grant for undergraduate research.  Beta Beta Beta is the National Biological Honor Society.

Simpson’s Allison Boardman received the grant during the 2008-09 academic year, while John Greaves received the honor during the 2012-13 school year.

Add senior Madelyne Besack to the list for the 2013-14 academic year. What makes her achievement more remarkable is how little interest she had in research projects when she arrived on the Simpson campus.

“I never wanted to do research,” she said. “I was not interested in it. I just wanted to do medicine. But I talked to Dr. (Jackie) Brittingham and Dr. (Pat) Singer and they said, ‘This is a good opportunity, you should try it.’”

That’s the sort of encouraging atmosphere that sets Simpson apart, Besack said.

“You’re pushed outside your boundaries just enough until they find that little spark of interest,” she said. “There are just so many opportunities here. Without Dr. Brittingham, I never would have even considered doing research. There are a lot of opportunities like that.”

Besack grew up in Omaha, Neb., and knew from the start that she wanted to eventually attend medical school and become a doctor. She participated on the Simpson track team her freshman year, then studied in Argentina for part of her sophomore year. She is majoring in biology and Spanish.

It was at the beginning of her junior year that Besack was paired with John Greaves, another senior, and encouraged by Brittingham, a professor of biology, to study the startlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis).

“It was nice because we jumped into this project together and worked as a team,” Besack said. “That also helped me, because I’m a pretty independent thinker and so it was good to have someone like John to bounce ideas off of, because he also has a strong personality. It was nice to be able to grow with him.”

But the starlet sea anemone?

She laughed. “It was hard for me to picture at first why we were doing this. This organism just sits in a dish. It’s boring. It doesn’t do anything but move its tentacles around. It doesn’t even swim.  I thought, ‘What are we doing with this ugly little organism?’

“Now I’ve spent two years with it, and I’m fascinated with it.”

What Besack and Greaves learned is that the simplicity of a startlet sea anemone allows researchers to explore cell structure and development at their most basic levels. Such research, it is hoped, will eventually lead to discoveries that can help humans.

“We are looking at the development of these basic organisms,” Besack said. “We treat these organisms at a very young age with different drugs, and the goal is to look at their development patterns and how they’re interacting with these drugs. This is a pretty new organism that has not been studied very much.”

Last year, at the Midwest Developmental Biology Conference in St. Louis, “people were so fascinating with our research, even though it’s very, very basic,” she said.

Besack and Greaves also received a Better FUTURES for Iowans grant, which allowed them to work with the microscopy facilities at the University of Iowa.

“We got these really cool images,” she said. “We were jumping up and down, we were so excited.”

The students will present their findings at a future Beta Beta Beta conference. But graduation is quickly approaching, and at some point the senior researchers will have to turn their work over to other Simpson students.

“It’s going to be hard, and we’ve talked about it,” she said. “It’ll be a little nerve-wracking to pass it on to someone else here. But I’ll have more closure than if we had to turn it over last year. There were still too many things we wanted to know.”

After graduation, Besack hopes to teach English in Ecuador for a year before beginning medical school. Having attended a high school with twice as many students as Simpson, she appreciates the opportunities available on a smaller campus.

She is president of the Pre-Health Society, vice president of the Spanish Club, and she is a Wesley Service Scholar as well as a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

“It’s so easy to get involved at Simpson,” Besack said. “This small college has given me incredible opportunities that I never would have gotten at a big university. At a bigger school, you’re almost forced to choose one path, one direction and one involvement. You can do everything here. I love it.”


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