Mentoring at Morgridge

When Ava VanDommelen was seven, she asked for her first microscope for Christmas.

Now, at 17-years-old, she’s using microscopy to explore cancer tumors and the immune system at the Morgridge Institute for Research.

“Imaging is so important during cancer research because it gives you a real-time idea of what’s happening on the cellular level in the tumor,” VanDommelen says. “This is really important for better understanding therapy and what’s actually going on in our bodies.”

Although she’s a senior at DeForest High School, VanDommelen is getting a slice of campus life. She works in the lab of medical engineer Melissa Skala as part of the Youth Apprenticeship Program run through the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTCI). Approximately 30 juniors and seniors from Dane County high schools participate in the program, which includes a weekly biotechnology class at the BTCI campus and work placement in a lab in Madison.

VanDommelen’s primary mentor in the Skala Lab, Amani Gillette, also went through the BTCI program as a high school student and is now a graduate researcher in the lab.

“The program is definitely worth every hour that you put into it because it opens doors for the future, and allows you to meet so many influential people,” VanDommelen says. “I’ve had such a great time and the research has been something I’ve come to really enjoy.”

Her hard work earned her a spot in a poster session at the 2018 Photonics West conference in San Francisco. The conference, held by the Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers, hosted more than 23,000 attendees from all over the world including engineers, researchers and industry experts.

VanDommelen says the conference experience, coupled with the mentoring she’s received working in the Skala Lab, has been particularly valuable.

“The best part about working at Morgridge has definitely been the experience I’ve been able to get before even graduating high school,” VanDommelen says. “That has helped me solidify my plans for afterwards saying that I do want to be involved in science for the rest of my life.”