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Q&A with Goldwater Scholarship recipient Sarah Tanck

CSE student awarded prestigious research scholarship

Researching diseases during a global pandemic is just a normal day for University of Minnesota Twin Cities junior Sarah Tanck. Her dedication to her undergraduate research led to her being selected as a 2022 Goldwater Scholar, a prestigious award given annually by the Barry Goldwater Excellence in Education Foundation to outstanding sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research-oriented careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering.

This year, 417 students were recognized as Goldwater Scholars out of more than 1,000 nominees from 433 colleges and universities nationwide.

Tanck, a recipient of both the College of Science and Engineering Lloyd Goerke Scholarship and the Graham Gleysteen Scholarship, is double-majoring in chemical engineering and chemistry with plans to complete a Ph.D. She joined chemistry professor Mark Distefano’s lab in 2019 as an undergraduate researcher. Tanck, who has been involved in three projects, has presented her research at the national American Chemical Society and the regional American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) conferences. She is currently doing a research and development engineering co-op at Abbott, a medical devices company based in the Midwest.  

In this Q&A, Tanck talks about her experience with undergraduate research and receiving the Goldwater scholarship. She also offers advice for students interested in research. 

What led you to pursue research at the University of Minnesota?

It was something I wanted to do in high school but I never really had the resources to, so I thought, “Okay, college. That’s where students do research.” I talked to a lot of professors, and eventually I found one who offered me a position in a lab. I really love learning things, and I really love not knowing things. Research is that place where you don’t really know everything to begin with. There’s a lot of gray space but you get to walk into that and make sense of things, and put it together like a puzzle. 

Why is the research you’ve done important to you?

It has really helped me grow as a person. I want to help people better when they’re sick and make sure that people don’t get sick. But, I think the research I’ve done at the U is more important to me because of the people I’ve met. Having a professor teach you all these different skills about how to read and present data has been so incredibly important, regardless of where I go in the future and what I specialize in.  

What has it been like to receive the Goldwater Scholarship?

If I’m being completely honest, it was a surprise. I came in like any other student, not having a whole lot of experience, and I look around and feel very similar to other students. It was really encouraging for someone to look at the research experience I’ve had and say, “Yes, this is good. This is important.” 

You’re a member of Professor Mark Distefano’s research group. What have you been working on?

He has a lot of different students in his lab, and we’re all working on different things. I have one friend who’s working on an Alzheimer's project. I'm working on this project related to cancer therapeutics to make proteins that can target tumor cells. 

How did your research experience impact what you want to do in the future?

I’m still really open-minded about my future. I feel like there’s a lot of college pressure to decide exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. But, I’m interested in so many things that it’s really hard to narrow it down. I feel like my research experience has helped me realize how many opportunities are out there, which is really great. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do in Ph.D. school, but I want to look into chronic or infectious diseases and see what opportunities are out there and give myself room to grow into them.  

Do you have any advice for students interested in doing research at the U?

I have a lot of advice. First, don’t be scared of the word “no.” It took me quite a while to find an opportunity to do research in someone’s lab, and I heard “no" a lot. It was really discouraging and made me want to quit sometimes, but know that it isn’t about you. They’re not rejecting you, they probably just don’t have a position. Realize that it’s important to keep looking and find those answers. 

My second piece of advice would be once you are in a research lab, present your data. That will make you much more confident in what you’re doing. It wasn’t until I presented my first research talk in one of those meetings that I was able to look back and think, “Wow, I actually made an impact.”

My third piece of advice is if you’re in a research lab, keep snacks in your desk. It’s not fun to do research on an empty stomach.

Interview by Katelyn Mayne

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