For Cora Petersen, science isn’t simply a field of study or an area of research—it’s the lens through which she can investigate, explore, and deepen her understanding of creation. Although she first came to Lubbock Christian University with a desire to become a veterinarian, she quickly realized that her passions rested in a different area of scientific study—as a researcher.
Cora knew early on that LCU was the right choice for her, and it was evident to many around her, including Dr. Andy Laughlin. “Cora came to LCU because of its Christian heritage and strong pre-veterinary program,” he said. “She arrived on campus already having served as an intern at the San Antonio zoo and was determined to become a veterinarian.” Cora agreed. “I decided to go to LCU for my undergraduate degree because I wanted an academic environment where I would be surrounded by people who were intentional about their walk with Christ.”
That criteria fit not only with her fellow students, but especially with her professor and mentors. “In my experience, the professors at LCU are one of the things that make this university really special.” This resonated deeply with her because, contrary to the popular belief that science and religion must reside in conflict with one another, the faculty at LCU constantly strive to reconcile and harmonize the two.
“As an Animal Science major, I got to spend a lot of time learning from people who see science as a way to worship God, not disprove Him,” she recalled. “This was essential to me as I grew as both a scientist and a Christian because they showed me how to bridge two topics I had always been taught to keep separate. Now, as I study science, I see the detail and care with which God has created this world and praise Him because of it.”
Cora was struck by their personal, intentional investment in her education. “I also really appreciated that I was never just another name on the roster,” she explained. “The professors at LCU are intentional with their mentorship and go out of their way to help students succeed.” In fact, it was this attitude of mentorship that helped Cora find her own calling.
“I had always thought I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she recalled, “but once I started doing undergraduate research, I decided to pursue graduate school instead of vet school. My project, and the mentorship I received from Dr. Doug Swartz, helped me develop my critical thinking skills and gave me practice presenting my findings.”
Dr. Swartz had her as a student first in his Cell and Molecular Biology course and then in the following semester’s Biotechnology course. “I think the topics in Cell Biology really struck a chord with her and introduced her to the complexity of living cells,” he recalled. “Biotechnology also focused on molecular biology, but with a lot of hands-on lab work for which she was well adapted. Her research project was actually an extension of a project that I started with her and her classmates in the Biotechnology class that semester.”
The purpose of Cora’s research was to make specific mutations in a protein and then observe how each mutation affected the function of the protein in cells through a growth assay. “We started making the mutations in biotech class,” Dr. Swartz recalled. “Then, Cora finished the mutations and developed the cellular growth assay for her independent research.” As is the case with many research projects, the process rarely progressed smoothly, and it required an extensive cycle of trial and error before Cora began to see results. “Throughout the process, Cora showed a good mixture of intellect, common sense, patience, curiosity, and tenacity, which are characteristics of a great researcher (in my opinion),” explained Dr. Swartz. In the end, Cora’s work resulted in her receiving the Outstanding Undergraduate Research award her senior year in 2018, and an opportunity to present her work at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Memphis, TN.
“I was even blessed to be chosen as one of the student plenary speakers for the LCU Scholars Colloquium,” Cora recalled. “Both of these helped me establish myself in the scientific community.” She also felt blessed to be a part of the LCU Honors College. “It enabled me to take more challenging courses, travel to a national symposium, and gave me many more opportunities to develop and practice my professionalism.”
When Cora graduated in the spring of 2017, she moved back to San Antonio and began working as a research assistant in a cancer pharmacology laboratory at the UT Health Science Center—she was determined to accrue more research experience before continuing on to graduate school. “My current research is focused on the study of breast cancer, specifically identifying new compounds from plants and fungi that have the potential to be used as therapeutics,” she shared.
“Taking Dr. Andy Laughlin's advice, I have used this time to learn as much as I can by attending seminars and symposiums, as well as talking to people about their research.” This approach quickly developed within Cora a keen interest in neuroscience, specifically the biology of behavior. “The brain makes up everything we are as individuals,” she explained, “and yet so much of what happens inside of it is outside of our control. This is really intriguing to me, so I decided to pursue neuroscience in graduate school.”
Cora’s passion and scholarship led to successes that have helped solidify that possibility. “Over the past year and a half, I have co-authored two papers, and am currently working on two more manuscripts that will hopefully be submitted for review this summer. Additionally,” she added, “I was also the recipient of the 2018 Chair’s Award for Excellence in Research from the Department of Pharmacology.”
She was recently accepted into the Neuroscience Graduate Program at The Ohio State University, and will begin pursuing her Ph.D. in Columbus beginning in the fall of 2019, even receiving a first year University Fellowship award.
Dr. Swartz has continued to mentor Cora since her graduation—and he isn’t alone. “I have kept in contact with several professors from LCU,” she shared, “and will continue to do so as I pursue my Ph.D.
“I am so grateful to LCU for providing an environment that fosters not only academic excellence, but personal and spiritual growth,” she continued. “I would not be where I am today without the guidance, encouragement, and support that I have received from this University and its faculty.”
The feeling is mutual—Dr. Laughlin also shared his excitement to see the continuation of her story, and what the future holds for her. “Connecting her passion for animals and her interest in scientific inquiry, Cora has transformed into a scientist,” he shared. “We are proud that she began her scientific career at LCU and know that her God-given talents will allow her to admirably contribute to the scientific field from The Ohio State University.”
Dr. Swartz agrees. “We are so excited for what she has already accomplished since leaving our department and cannot wait to see where her future takes her.”