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Cherng Scholar Lara Stefani

Cherng Scholar Lara StefaniBy Sarah Kiefer

It was a dark and stormy night …

While this line sets an eerie scene in many mystery novels, the setting isn’t often a lab bench. For Lara Stefani, suspense bleeds over between her hobbies and work.

Stefani writes and reads science fiction to activate her artistic side, but as an undergraduate researcher in the Lloyd Sumner lab at Bond LSC she recently received a Cherng Summer Scholarship to be a detective of sorts on her own research project.

“Mystery enables me to explore the human depths with different ways of being able to reach human emotions and essence,” Stefani said. “I like building character interactions and seeing how close or how distant they become for certain reasons and explore their humanity.”

The medical mystery Stefani focuses on now is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

PCOS affects around 5 million women worldwide and displays many symptoms not readily identified, such as imbalances in hormone levels or metabolism related issues. This makes PCOS a challenge to recognize and often leads to diagnoses later in life. Stefani was diagnosed in her teenage years with the condition but finds that it gives her a distinct perspective on the topic.

“Ever since I was able to choose a project for this program, I investigated conditions that I have a personal relationship with,” Stefani said “I know how it is to have the condition, so I have this personal link, and I feel more connected to helping others given the impacts this syndrome has on other facets of your health, and it was something that marked me in a way.”

Stefani is one of fourteen Cherng Summer Scholars— two of which are in Bond LSC — a program that gives undergraduate students an opportunity to lead their own project with MU faculty oversight. This scholarship — with a $7,000 award and $1,000 expense account — will let her study the use of elderberry plants as an alternative treatment option for PCOS.

“I was extremely ecstatic and so excited to receive the scholarship because it was something that I wrote in terms of building up the idea and I had all of the support from the lab,” Stefani said. “It was like a taste of victory, even though I had barely even started on the project.”

After she received the award, Stefani got straight to work.

She asked questions and gathered supplies. The cells Stefani needs come in mid-June, so now she’s preparing the experiments and procedures she plans to perform.

“I think science is a way that we can understand not only ourselves, but the world around us to be able to explore the boundaries of our knowledge on many things,” Stefani said. It’s very beautiful when we are able to ask why and come up with answers eventually. It gives that sensation of closure in this process, or at least new doors to open.”

Clayton Kranawetter — Stefani’s mentor at Bond LSC — guided her on where to start with elderberry research since he started working with elderberries in the same lab.

“He knows a lot about them, so he has been able to be one of my greatest sources of support in terms not only of theory, but also practice in the lab, such as biodiversity and how to take care of the plants that are also our samples.”

When Stefani dove into outside research on PCOS and discovered a class of chemicals known as polyphenols, which have positive effects on ovarian cells and hormone secretions, she began to formulate an idea of how elderberries could be beneficial in a treatment for this condition.

“I had a connection when I started working on this project and it feels like my place, like I belong with this because it is a vessel for me to fulfill my objective or end goal of helping others,” Stefani said. “It felt more mine than any other career that I had thought of before.”

Although Stefani’s project is only one step, it will aid other researchers in knowing what elderberries can contribute to a possible PCOS treatment down the line.

“It’s something that I can do for other women, and it feels empowering. It can possibly at least change and expand the understanding of the condition and what we can do to manage it.”

Stefani’s writing hobbies and her research work together as she expresses herself and maintains her curiosity about what science can reveal.

“These hobbies have been a source of support because I can’t see be who I am without these activities,” Stefani said. “They have been able to become a part of my universe and a chance for me to be myself through other fields, not only science. I like to think that we don’t have to be only one thing, since we ourselves can’t be defined by a single word or idea.”

In addition to writing, Stefani also draws in her free time, which allows her to document her feelings on a piece of paper as art rather than text.

“I like to draw things that reflect my thoughts or emotions, that I keep close to my heart and I eventually need to put out there,” Stefani said.

Stefani hopes to harness her creative abilities in the lab to record another chapter in the mystery novel of PCOS.

“This type of work makes me feel like I’m walking towards my dream in a way, and that’s very special to me,” Stefani said. “It feels like I am doing this for people, and, even if I can’t see the results right now because I’m just beginning, I’m still taking that first step.”

Article originally published on Decoding Science.