Eggenberger, '13, Charts Her Own Course in Biophysics

Olivia Eggenberger, '13"I have gained valuable experience in cell culturing and the different types of cells," says Eggenberger, who credits Albion's faculty "for helping and inspiring me in terms of physics."

Olivia Eggenberger, '13, says she has great role models in the physics department at Albion College, but she was seeking a female mentor in biophysics when she attended a Women in Physics conference during the break between the fall and spring semesters last winter. The Canton, Mich., native got more than she bargained for as Amy Rowat, an assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered Eggenberger an opportunity to join a research opportunity from May to August.

"It is difficult for a woman interested in physics to get a female mentor, and it is hard to get research experience at the undergraduate level," Eggenberger said. "It has been nice to see the role reversal this summer working with a female physicist who has her own lab and her own post-doctoral research team.

"I got lucky to find a role model in biophysics at the conference but that doesn't make me any less grateful to [Albion physics faculty] Dr. Nicolle Zellner, Dr. Aaron Miller, Dr. David Seeley and Dr. Charles Moreau for helping and inspiring me in terms of physics," she added. "Without them, I never would have been able to go to the conference or come here to get more experience in the academic department that I wish to get a Ph.D."

Once she found that medical-related positions in physics didn't fulfill her interests, Eggenberger worked with Zellner in the search for experience in other fields and with women. In addition to being fortunate to meet Rowat, Eggenberger said having family in the Los Angeles area to provide housing as well as College funds for travel were essential to make the West Coast experience a reality.

Eggenberger has been working with Rowat's team in the development of a device that tests how individual cells change their shape to move through the body. According to Rowat's website, the aim of the research is to determine the difference in rigidity of the nuclei in different types of cells, how that contributes to the deformity of the cell, and the implications for functions in the body.

"I have gained valuable experience in cell culturing and the different types of cells," Eggenberger said. "I have compared the way cells interact in different devices and how these devices trap cells on individual levels."

While the science will likely lead to a thesis and a presentation during the Elkin Isaac Research Symposium in April, the experience of working in Rowat's lab has motivated Eggenberger to move on to a Ph.D. program, to start her own research, and to open the path for more women in the field.

"It is intimidating going into a predominantly male industry," Eggenberger said. "Society puts different pressure on women. I'll be finishing my Ph.D. at a time when society says I should be settling down.

"I appreciate [that Rowat] is still really feminine and has not changed the way she acts," Eggenberger added. "She is able to run a lab efficiently while still being herself."