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Passion for Research and Work That Could Help Others Drives Undergrad

Samantha Deitz | 2010 Alumna, B.S. Biology
Graduate Student, Biology@IUPUI

When Samantha Deitz picked up her Purdue School of Science at IUPUI diploma in May 2010, a good graduation present might have been a “game program” listing all her roles during the last four years: award-winning student, scientist, researcher, recruiter, mentor, athlete, coach and volunteer — even apple picker.

But the one that resonated most is the one that brought her to IUPUI in the first place: a place in assistant professor Randall Roper's biology laboratory, exploring causes for Down syndrome and ways to deal with the genetic condition.

Deitz has never forgotten Greenwood High School teacher Becky Kehler's encouragement of Deitz and several fellow students to tackle a research project on sea urchins. “I was hooked,” Dietz recalls. She visited research-driven schools like Purdue, IU and even North Carolina, but when she took part in an IU School of Medicine-sponsored clinical conference at IUPUI, “I knew I'd found everything I wanted, all on one campus.”

Then she learned that IUPUI students may join research teams immediately. “That's huge!” Deitz exclaims. “You're doing experiments yourself, not watching someone else do them.” But she quickly learned a key lesson: avoid assumptions. “I'd been here a few weeks and still had no lab assignment. I found out I'd missed the deadline to sign up because I didn't follow up,” she recalls with a grimace. But an advisor hooked her up with a new Science researcher (Roper) from Johns Hopkins University, and Deitz has never looked back, even as she embarked on her master's degree in biology at IUPUI.

Samantha Deitz (left) and researcher Randall Roper (above) have spent four years looking at ways to unlock the secrets of Down syndrome. Deitz has become a leader for Roper's team (lower right) during her undergraduate research work.New home

Deitz felt at home when “I walked into his lab for the first time, saw the empty shelves and tables, with three boxes in the middle of the floor,” she says. “It was perfect — the chance to help start a new lab!”

For four years, “Sam's helped run my lab,” Roper laughs, recruiting team members, mentoring them, even helping plan paths of inquiry. “It has been fun to see her develop as a scientist.” But at the start, Roper wasn't sure what role she would play. “I had already given out the best projects,” he says. So he handed her a stack of 4-by-6 cards — details like age, gender, weight, lineage of lab mice, etc. — he'd brought from Johns Hopkins, and asked Deitz to build a spreadsheet to evaluate the data. To his surprise, she found something. “She was determined to make something out of the project,” and her results “formed the basis for a research project she worked on for four years.”

For Deitz, the cards were “magic! After that, things just exploded,” she says. “I learned lab techniques, how to create and plan an experiment, how to analyze data, how to write papers — basically, how to think like a scientist!”

Deitz got funding for her work. She's presented her findings at national meetings. And Roper is proud that “Sam has a manuscript currently under review for publication in a major genetics journal.” What once was “a sideline project” had evolved into “a major piece of our current investigations.”

That includes figuring out “how to translate what we've learned into something other teams can use, or a doctor can use to make life better for a patient, or that Lilly can use to improve the quality of life for people with Down and their families. Those are the moments we live for,” Deitz says.

Ironically, a research career might not be Deitz's ultimate path. “I'm a very 'motherly' kind of person, always taking someone under my wing,” she says. “I want to have a family of my own, and a full-time career running my own lab might not fit with that. But I realized I could combine research and education. I thrive off that personal connection, helping a college student understand what they were studying. I love the mind of a college student; always questioning, always challenging others, including their teachers. That's so exciting!”

Future in teaching?

Roper is convinced that Deitz would be “an excellent teacher,” because “she knows the value of participation and effort,” and encourages others to follow her lead.

Fellow Science faculty member Robert Yost, the chair of the Science Education Foundation of Indiana, Inc., concurs. Deitz “is passionately consumed with mentoring, and she's a terrific role model,” says Yost, who has been impressed by her daily level of preparation. “Samantha always makes sure that all the mentors were up to speed and provided the services students needed.”

Deitz's interest in mentoring is rooted in first-hand experience. “The first year of college can be so overwhelming,” she says.

“It's not so much about helping younger students do their work. It's letting them know there are people there to help, to hash out approaches to a problem, and mostly just to feel connected.”

Mentors benefit, too. “So many mentors take on leadership roles in other ways, too,” Deitz says. “On a resume, it tells potential employers that you enjoy being part of a team, that you're willing to take the initiative and that you'll help anyone you can.”

Hard work helps, too, and Deitz doesn't mind that a bit. Her family runs the Anderson Orchard near Mooresville, southwest of Indianapolis, and “I still like to help out when I'm back home,” she says. During high school, she worked hard to become a good volleyball player and has been a lay coach for her alma mater for years. She worked at a nearby health-care facility in early mornings. The sense or purpose she found there fueled an interest in volunteerism; she's worked for Damar Services Inc. and Outreach, Inc.

That earned Deitz a William M. Plater Civic Engagement Medallion for service. She twice was named to IUPUI's “Top 100” students for academic achievement, and as a senior received the Chancellor's Scholar Award as the top student in the School of Science. At the 2011 IUPUI Research Day, she was awarded 2nd place in the Graduate and Professional student poster presentation for her research "Molecular Basis and Modification of a neural crest deficit in a Down syndrome model."

The awards are nice, she admits, but her IUPUI years have been memorable just as much for her time spent with Roper and other lab team members, sharing “a passion for research and work that could help others on a human level, where it changes lives. When you can do that, through research or teaching or mentoring, that's what stays with you,” Deitz says.

Update: Samantha Dietz earned a master's degree from the School of Science at IUPUI in 2012. She now works as a research technician at the IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis.