Larkin Clem came to Saint Mary’s University for volleyball but she’s leaving with a fulfilling career path.

The Elk River, Minn., native came to campus knowing she was a future Cardinal athlete and also that she was interested in biology. Now retired faculty member Randy Krainock told her about all the research opportunities she would have, and his enthusiasm both rubbed off on her and sealed her academic future.

He wasn’t mistaken about research opportunities.

Her sophomore year, Clem worked with her adviser Dr. Matthew Rowley on optimizing the university’s flow cytometry protocol. The flow cytometry equipment, which is used in large and smaller scale labs to identify certain characteristics of cancer cells and normal cells, had sometimes been yielding unexpected data, so Clem did cell growth and death rate tests to optimize how the machine is used and to make it easier for all students in the future.

She’s also been working on various research projects including analyzing the expression of epiregulin in response to TBX2 transfection.

It’s when she can talk about things like epiregulin and TBX2, without having to explain what that means, that she excels.

“Research matches my personality,” she said. “It’s a lot of independent benchwork, but it’s also about being part of an intellectual community. I’ve always thrived where advisers have viewed me as an equal and talked about science at the highest level.”

Clem said she’s been grateful for all the hands-on research she’s been able to do as an undergraduate. “It prepared me to do my research at a high-capacity research institution,” she said.

This past summer, for a 10-week internship, she did full-time research at the University of Minnesota in their life sciences summer undergraduate program in the cancer research wing. Working alongside a second-year Ph.D. student, Clem studied how estrogen affects breast cancer growth – a topic she is using for her senior thesis.

“In general, if you have invasive lobular carcinoma and treat it with estrogen, certain genes are more highly expressed as a result, which correlates with higher growth rates, tumor burden, and more aggressive phenotype,” she said. “If you treat mice with estrogen, they grow tumors faster, bigger, and more resistant to drug therapy.”

Next year, she will be enrolled in the cancer biology Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For the next five to seven years, she’ll be doing research, and publishing papers on her way to obtaining her doctorate. Eventually, she would love to run her own cancer research lab.

She’s had quite a few family members and friends battle the invasive disease. “Everyone sadly has known someone who has gone through cancer or lost the battle with cancer,” she said. “I’m glad I can enter a program that is aiming to make a difference.”

Although Clem won’t be going into patient care, she is excited to know that the work she does in the lab will affect patient outcomes. “Finding the cure to cancer is a large, massive task that no one person, lab, or university will do. It’s about translational research, making sure it has applications to patients and to actual people. Making biomarkers and having translational research will be driving my career in the future.”

Clem says she genuinely feels prepared for the next step of her academic journey. “Going into the internship last summer, I was really nervous; I was working with doctoral students,” she said. “But I think Dr. Rowley’s mentorship style has really helped me. He’s hands off. He provides guidance but also gives you freedom. I’ve been able to succeed without him being over my shoulder which has really been beneficial. Everyone in biology has been great. It’s a close knit community of advisers who are all looking out for you and trying to help you get to where you want to go next.”

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