Paving the way in problem-solving diseases

by Catalina Myers  |   

UAA junior Cora Lyon, a double major in health science/health education and biology with a concentration in microbiology and a minor in communications, was recently awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

 “I’ve always loved puzzles, whether it’s a sudoku, a crossword or an actual jigsaw puzzle, I love them,” said junior Cora Lyon, a double major in health science/health education and biology with a concentration in microbiology and a minor in communications. “In high school, for extra credit, we were able to watch the PBS documentary, Emperor of All Maladies — it’s about cancer. It was so good that I ended up watching all three sections.” That extra credit assignment kick-started Lyon’s interest in the health sciences and provided the inspiration and motivation for pursuing research in her undergraduate career at UAA. 

Recently, Lyon was awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, an undergraduate scholarship awarded to about 300 college sophomores and juniors annually in the disciplines of natural science, mathematics and engineering. The merit-based scholarship is allocated on need and awards recipients up to $7,500 for tuition.  

“It’s just the complicated way in which cancers can grow and the different pathways involved and the different ways you can try and treat it that really caught me,” said Lyon. “I started reading everything I could. I read Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, Mountains Beyond Mountains — I was just fascinated and tried to read everything I could. What drew me to UAA was the ability to do undergraduate research. I learned in high school in my general biology class about diseases and I couldn’t get enough.”

Lyon is a Lower 48 transplant, growing up in Washington, but had a parent living in Alaska. Similar to Alaska’s Middle College, Washington has a program called Running Start, where Lyon took general biology and chemistry. By the time she graduated from high school and received her diploma, Lyon had already earned her associate degree. 

For Lyon, UAA was her top choice. She came up for Thanksgiving one year and despite the frigid, dark November days, Alaska felt like home. When it came time for her to apply, she was accepted early and was able to sit back and relax while her friends bided their time waiting to hear whether or not they’d been accepted by their top choices for college.

“That’s the one fun thing about UAA — all my friends and I were still deciding where we wanted to apply and the application process opened like September 20 or something,” Lyon said. “I took a few extra days to get a couple of things together and then applied. I was sitting with some friends the next day and I got an email and I assumed they were just confirming my application. No, it was my acceptance. I didn’t even have to apply anywhere else, UAA was my top choice.”

Since arriving in Alaska and at UAA, Lyon has taken advantage of the university’s robust undergraduate research opportunities open to students. Her freshman year, Lyon was awarded an Office of Undergraduate Research Grant where she worked under Eric Bortz in his lab. The next fall she was given an Alaska Space Grant to conduct research and the following summer, she participated in an Undergraduate Research Assistantship. 

This year, Lyon’s Alaska Space Grant was renewed and in addition to her Goldwater Scholarship, she’s been offered another Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship from the National Institute of Health researching Brucella abortus, a bacteria affecting cattle and their ability to give birth. 

“The faculty here is amazing in the way that they try to find programs and reach out to students they think it will work for,” said Lyon. Last year Holly Martinson, assistant professor in the WWAMI School of Medical Education and the university’s Goldwater Scholarship representative, reached out to Lyon, suggesting she apply. “I applied last year and did not receive it, but decided to reapply this year. It’s an honor, especially since I am able to get my research further out there and the name of UAA in general.”

According to Lyon, two students, herself included and a student from the University of Alaska Fairbanks were awarded the scholarship.

In addition to her busy class and research schedule, Lyon is involved with the Goldwater Scholarship community here in Alaska. Past recipients created a group for Goldwater Scholars to help get the word out about the award and to provide camaraderie and to share research with those who have received the award. Lyon said the group is planning a conference for student research, which Lyon is hoping to help advise on. She wants to help make research more accessible for undergraduate students and communicate the research they are conducting to the rest of the Alaska community.

Lyon is slated to graduate next spring and has a long road of schooling ahead of her — about 12 years. She plans to earn her medical degree in biology and doctorate degrees concurrently, focusing both on the medical and pathology side of things so she can study diseases. Which brings Lyon’s desire for problem-solving puzzles full circle.

“When I chose to study biology/microbiology and health science/health science education, it seemed like a two-prong approach to the same problem,” Lyon said. “Biology allows me to understand the disease itself and what it does, whereas, the health science helps me learn how people will react to it and the community impacts of disease.”

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