B.S. Natural Sciences ’14
Hometowns: Anchorage and Seldovia
Fun Fact: Paid her way through college as a medical scribe at Providence Hospital.
Rare is the undergraduate who can say she spent 18 months doing cancer research before she ever walked across the stage to pick up her college diploma.
But UAA senior Ellen Dore can say it. She accomplished this feat as a University Honors College student and recipient of one of five Alaska Heart Institute grants competitively awarded to UAA undergraduates.
Her work was guided by Eric Bortz, an assistant professor of biological sciences. This achievement was significant enough to earn her an invitation to the National Council on Undergraduate Research conference this April at the University of Kentucky, where she presented her work. An Honors College Discovery Award helped with expenses to the conference, and she will also present at UAA’s own Undergraduate Research and Discovery Symposium this week.
How does someone become this accomplished so early in life? The discipline and focus began early, Ellen said. She is the only child of hardworking Alaskans, a mother who is a registered nurse and a father who worked the Alaska pipeline, is a pilot, airplane mechanic and general Alaska Renaissance man. Her parents chose to homeschool her, and very early on instilled the study habits that would make college academics and eventual plans for medical school attainable.
Parental challenge: Pay for college yourself
Actually, the medical school plan came after she’d been at UAA for about a year and was beginning studies in her favorite field, chemistry. While still in high school, she assumed she’d be a nurse like her mother. On the cusp of college, she even imagined attending her mother’s alma mater, a Catholic women’s college in the Midwest. Then she looked at the price tag and swallowed hard. The college tuition arrangement she had with her parents was simple and straightforward: She was paying the whole bill.
So Ellen pragmatically chose UAA. And today can confidently say, “I am so glad I did!” (More on why in a minute.)
Her homeschooling and family income didn’t deliver much in the way of tuition assistance, but she earned scholarships through the University Honors College and worked throughout her time at UAA. This May when she accepts her diploma, her $25,000 undergraduate degree in natural sciences, with a minor in chemistry and another in biology, will be debt-free.
The truth is, Ellen has a work ethic to be admired. She says she got it from her father, who never accepted any thing less than her absolute best. He lives that same philosophy himself, she said, and it’s now ingrained in her. As a young girl, she began working for neighbors who had businesses, and was always helping her dad build home projects like a wood shed or maintaining their family gardens.
She’d done a lot of data inputting for one of her neighbor’s businesses, so at the end of her freshman year, when a project manager for the new medical scribing service at Providence Hospital came into a UAA science class looking for prospective workers, Ellen signed on.
That experience was transformative. Her very first day on the job working in the emergency room, she was paired with a woman doctor who was triaging cases and caring for trauma patients. “This was my first exposure to what doctors really do,” Ellen said. “A couple of ambulances came in, I saw how they run codes. There was a combative patient. I watched her work and I knew—this is what I want to do.”
Part of it is the excitement of the emergency room. “I just love the environment. I love the fast pace. I love the constant change, there’s something new happening all the time.”
But it was also the doctor’s attitude and skill. “She exuded confidence,” Ellen said. “She seemed so happy about what she was doing. She was reserved, but very into her job.”
Ellen’s role as a medical scribe is to follow the doctor right into the treatment room and take notes on a laptop she rolls around with her. She’s done the work mostly part time for two years now, and will work at the job full time next year (in between some planned global travel, another passion of hers) while she waits for her medical school applications to process.
Ellen says the medical scribe pool is filled with her UAA colleagues because the work is perfect for students; their skills are always in demand and they can adjust their shift schedule to fit academic workloads. Just this spring, eight of her fellow scribes accepted medical school admissions.
So this is a big reason why she is so glad that she chose UAA. This medical scribing opportunity, which led to a new choice of career, would never have happened if she weren’t sitting in a science class in her favorite spot on campus, ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building.
Mentored science research
Besides the ‘a-ha’ moment that led to her medical school plans, she also credits the quality of faculty she found at UAA. In her work with Eric Bortz, she remembers meeting him and listening to research options in his lab.
“He brought up concepts that could shoot off his research,” Ellen said. “When he mentioned ‘cancer,’ I was interested immediately. We have had family friends with pancreatic cancer; a close friend died from it in 2011. I knew when I heard that, this was exactly what I wanted to do.”
She also appreciates other science professors for inspiring her, including Mark McCoy, Patrick Tomco, Colin McGill, Eric Holmberg, Liliya Vugmeyster. Yes, all teach chemistry. “Chemistry is my true love,” she said. Her favorite classes? A tie between quantitative analysis and organic chemistry.
Her work with Bortz has been employing viruses to try and kill cancer cells. The goal is to induce cell death or at least inhibit cell growth by infecting a cell line with viral RNA to see if she can trigger an innate immune response. She has been working with lung carcinoma cells, a pancreatic cell line and even some kidney tissue.
Bortz was eager to describe her role in his lab. “Since late 2012, she has led an independent project to understand how antiviral responses of the human immune system might be harnessed for new therapies against cancer. Stimulated by Ellen’s preliminary work on this project, we have expanded our research in cancer biology,” he wrote by email.
So far, her results have been promising though she acknowledges there is not likely to be any simple silver bullet that defeats cancer. “Along with chemotherapy and radiation, it may be a tool in the toolkit,” she said. The challenge is that cancer can metastasize throughout the body and it’s difficult to target tumors specifically unless you inject them directly. But never say never: Someday there may be a way to customize the tool, she said.
Tip: Be in it for the long haul
As she closes out a very successful academic career at UAA, I asked Ellen for tips on how to effectively navigate the system and get from the university what a student needs. Most of her advice was aimed at helping students be humble and keep learning.
“Don’t skip class,” she said. “Do NOT get professors mad at you.” Be humble. “Don’t be the obnoxious one who says, ‘I got an A in general chemistry, so now I am going to ace everything. You still have to get through organic chemistry and biochemistry,” she says. “You have a long way to go.”
Something she learned the hard way is that a perfect 4.0 is not the most important thing in the world. The semester she took nine classes (six lectures, three labs) and got her first B, “I was devastated.” Now, that all seems a little silly to her.
By the time you are a senior, she says, you wish good outcomes not only for yourself, but for the classmates who stuck with you those four hard years.
Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement.