She is an honors student, biology researcher, volunteer extraordinaire and now recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the state: the Lincoln Academy Student Laureate Award, given annually to one student at each four-year college in the state. University of Illinois senior and Chancellor’s Scholar ELENA WILSON mentors incoming UI freshmen and students at Centennial High School, teaches chemistry to local students, and volunteers at Carle Foundation Hospital, the Champaign County Christian Health Center and the HeRMES Multicultural Clinic — all while compiling a stellar academic record. Wilson talked with staff writer Julie Wurth about her research at Yale and the Mayo Clinic, her passion for service and the wonders of Vienna — and Rockford.
What did you do when you found out you’d won the Lincoln Academy Award?
I think the first thing I did was just say, wow. I was really honored and humbled to have been recognized in this way. I think I then just called my parents and let them know I had been selected.
Tell us about your family.
I was born in Moscow and came to the United States when I was 1, when I was adopted. I’ve lived in Rockford my whole life. I’m an only child. My parents are both retired. My dad worked for an aerospace company and mom was a medical technician at a hospital.
What motivated you to start volunteering?
I had always grown up volunteering. I think my parents were big in that. I often saw them serving in our church community and once I was in middle school and beginning to be involved in our church youth programs, I really leaned in to volunteering. Every summer, we would spend a weekend in my hometown working at a community site to improve it. I think the friendships and experience of helping others really motivated me to continue. I also had opportunities to volunteer at a local soup kitchen.
What do you like about volunteering at health-service organizations?
I think health-based service is really eye-opening. I find it inspiring and a great privilege to be able to hear the stories of individuals seeking care. It has helped me better understand some of the failures of our health care system and empathize with the challenges in accessing care and affording adequate care for some individuals.
What drew you to the University of Illinois?
Illinois offered me the best opportunity to do what I wanted to do. Between the honors programs and courses and the wide variety of majors, I was really able to create my own experience and nurture and develop old and new passions. The faculty has also been outstanding. I also think the sense of community has continued to make me love this school. I have made some of the absolute best friends here, who are intelligent, passionate and inspire me.
You will graduate with a dual degree in molecular and cellular biology and German. How did you come up with that combination?
I knew I was interested in the sciences and came in as a biochemistry major. I then transitioned shortly into an MCB degree. I felt this degree gave me a bit more flexibility and the courses sounded more aligned with my interests.
After my sophomore year of high school, I had the opportunity to travel and stay in Germany for about three weeks with a friend of mine who is from Germany. I met some of her friends and realized that we weren’t able to understand one another, as they spoke German and I spoke English. This made me really sad and inspired me to learn German so upon my return I would be able to better communicate.
You landed two prestigious research internships, at the Yale School of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic. What did you work on while there?
At the Mayo Clinic I worked with Dr. John Lieske to better understand how inflammation may impact kidney-stone formation, and specifically what cell types were causing the inflammation. At Yale School of Medicine, I worked with Dr. Whitney Besse in Dr. Steve Somlo’s lab to identify various changes in ... genes responsible for polycystic kidney and polycystic liver diseases.
I also have been very fortunate to work with Jessica Saw, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate, and Dr. Bruce Fouke and Dr. Mayandi Sivaguru at the Institute for Genomic Biology. Their support and willingness to allow me to explore big research questions, while fully integrating me into the research process, has given me invaluable experience and skills, as well as the opportunity to write an undergraduate thesis in biology.
What’s your dream job?
My dream job would be as a physician-scientist at an academic institution. I would love to teach in an academic environment at some point in my life and also be able to pursue research with a team of individuals to help improve the lives of my patients.
What do you plan to do after graduation?
My German degree has allowed me to truly engage my creative side and ask philosophical questions, which has culminated in an undergraduate thesis with the department exploring Holocaust literature and representation. I hope to stay engaged in learning the language and traveling to German-speaking areas of the world throughout life, while continuing to research and write about themes in German literature.
I am hoping to use my MCB degree to better understand diseases and pursue patient-centered research for focused and effective treatments. This next year, after graduation, I am taking a year to work as a post-baccalaureate researcher before applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs.
What’s on your post-graduation bucket list?
I am really looking forward to continuing to learn. I hope to read more books, learn a new language, and travel back to Germany, along with spending time with friends before transitioning into my next chapter of life.
What was your favorite thing about studying abroad in Vienna? Did you waltz while you were there?
The city. It is absolutely beautiful, and the cobblestone streets, imperial buildings and cozy cafes all made the history come alive. The public transport was so easy and the ability to find somewhere new to explore every day made it so much more exciting. I did not end up waltzing, but when I was there it was “ball” season, so it was not unheard of to see elegantly dressed people downtown.
What’s something cool about Rockford that we don’t know?
Rockford is the best! It has a lot of good restaurants and local businesses. I think it is really neat to see how the downtown area has evolved as I have grown up. I really think it is a town full of amazing people who care deeply and want to see it succeed.