In both life and science, a promising young researcher savors the process of discovery and the element of surprise.
Anyone who looks at Shameika Wilmington’s resume would think success comes easily to the 22-year-old, but the biochemistry major’s achievements have been mixed with a few rough patches. When she hits those patches, she thinks of her family.
“There are so many people counting on me,” she says. “This has helped motivate me, knowing there are nearly sixty people waiting for me to graduate.”
Wilmington’s accomplishments include a $20,000 scholarship, and awards for research presentations at The University of Iowa and the national Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, where she won a prestigious Best Oral Presentation Award. In addition, she may be a lead author of a journal paper by the time she earns her Bachelor of Science in spring 2008.
The scholarship helped pay her tuition, which she also covered by working as a server, a lab researcher, and a resident assistant in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) living-learning community. UI Residence Life Services named Wilmington’s WISE floor the best floor community in 2006.
And yet, the student from Davenport, Iowa, has experienced the ups and downs of any fledgling plotting his or her course in life.
Wilmington’s parents put their college plans on hold when she was born, as they then were still teenagers. Her father drove trucks for most of her childhood, starting college when she was in high school and graduating with a computer science degree in 2007.
When Wilmington began to chart her own college and career path, she gravitated to the two fields that seemed to her synonymous with achievement—medicine and law. She thought she’d explore medicine first and chose biochemistry as her major at The University of Iowa.
“There was no real strong reason for why I picked biochemistry, but plenty of reasons for why I stuck with it,” she says. “I knew biochemistry would be a good major if I was considering medical school. Plus, I found it interesting.”
Wilmington’s interest took root when she started working in a lab her second semester at the University. She met her research mentor, Pamela Geyer, professor of biochemistry in the Carver College of Medicine, through the Iowa Bioscience Advantage program.
Geyer’s lab uses fruit flies as models to understand human development and disease mechanisms. Wilmington’s work focuses on studying genes implicated in human diseases such as muscular dystrophy and progeria, a disorder that causes children to age and die prematurely.
“I think what keeps me going at my research is the element of discovery,” she says.
Geyer believes Wilmington has what it takes to succeed.
“I know she’s talented,” she says. “In my lab, she’s been successful with everything I’ve given her. Her experiments always work. ”
Wilmington is the only undergraduate Geyer has worked with who has managed to turn out multiple papers, including one where the student could be a lead author.
“As an undergraduate, if you’re a middle author, that’s wonderful. If you have multiple papers, one of which you’re a lead author, that’s unheard of, in my experience,” Geyer says.
At times, however, Wilmington still doubted whether science was right for her.
Three years into her degree, she signed up for a laboratory internship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to see whether her love for science transcended the Geyer lab, Iowa, and fruit flies. She came back from Virginia with the realization that her interest in science wasn’t fleeting.
Wilmington now knows she wants a career in science but is unsure what the future holds—hopefully, she’ll enter one of the ten doctoral programs she’s applied to. In many ways, she has found that both life and research are journeys of discovery.
“I think one of the reasons I love being in the lab is because you have a question and there are ten different ways to attack the question,” she says. “You figure out one way but then you think about something else, and you try to answer the question another way. It keeps leading you to places you didn’t know about. I do like the element of surprise.”
Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tim Schoon
Jan. 14, 2008