Spring/Summer 2019

by Pierce Claassen, a microbiology undergraduate student in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences

Walking quickly through an underground tunnel that stretches nearly a half mile, I carried samples frozen on dry ice between two buildings on the Mayo Clinic campus to be tested as part of a clinical study on irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Analysis of the tissues may help physician-scientists understand the causes of IBS and one day find a cure. In other places, it could take hours or days for analysis to begin, but here at the Mayo Clinic, I was impressed by how almost instantaneous everything is. The testing for these samples began just 15 minutes after they were taken.

For 10 weeks in the summer of 2018, I had the pleasure of interacting with some of the most skillful physicians and knowledgeable scientists in their respective disciplines as an undergraduate research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Most days, shortly after waking up in my sky-rise apartment, I would hustle to the Mayo Clinic campus to work in a laboratory within the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, analyzing tissue samples where researchers are trying to learn more about the pathological mechanisms of gastroenterological conditions.

But it was lunchtime I really looked forward to because every day, the Mayo Clinic held Grand Round talks with guest lecturers from top medical institutions such as Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania. There I witnessed physicians discuss cases and learned how doctors think through medical issues and make decisions regarding treatments. On Thursdays, I attended gastroenterology and hepatology sub-specialty case conferences where I observed gastroenterology fellows from the Mayo Clinic discussing medical cases, current research, and even legal aspects of the field. Before this fellowship, I may have had a few minutes to ask questions to physicians I was shadowing back home. Here, I was able to listen to board-certified professionals discuss medicine with their colleagues for an hour every day.

The physician I worked under was devoted to clinical and translational gastrointestinal research, which means that the investigatory work that was done in the laboratory was directly related to ongoing clinical trials that will ultimately help treat patients. This area of research was ideal for an aspiring physician, like me, because so much of it was directly related to patient care. One of the things I really enjoyed about being at the Mayo Clinic, where over one million patients are seen annually, was observing the interaction between medical doctors and scientists who are always working with the best interest of the patient in mind.

Being awarded this M.D.-Ph.D. preparatory fellowship is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. This experience showed me how doctors and scientists collaborate to answer extraordinarily complicated questions, how physicians-in-training interact with master clinicians, and most importantly how these professionals collaborate to provide the highest quality of care on such a large scale.

Pierce Claassen was 1 of 130 select undergraduates in the country to receive a SURF position out of 1,350 who applied. As a junior, he was also one of the younger fellows. Pierce is a WSU Regents Scholar, WSU Auvil Fellow, and received the Alice L. and William E. Diers Student Endowment in the spring of 2019. He has been researching in Dr. Rey Carabeo’s lab since the beginning of his sophomore year at WSU and has participated at SURCA multiple years. He is the son of a third-generation wheat farmer from Clarkston, Washington, and has been a dedicated Cougar fan his entire life. His long-term goal is to return to his hometown to practice medicine and serve the community that has been his family’s home for many generations. He is currently going through the medical school application process.

Pierce would like to thank his School of Molecular Biosciences mentors, Dr. Rey Carabeo and Dr. William B. Davis, as well as his advisors in the Health Professions Student Center, Dr. Lourdes Giordani and Dr. Donald Allison for their steadfast support and professional guidance.