Cullman Scholarship Furthers Interest in Women’s Health, Biomedical Research

What is my body doing?” is a question you may have asked yourself before. While this wonder often ceases after any symptoms or abnormalities subside, for some, questioning the internal workings of our human bodies leads to further exploration.
Such was the case for Eliza '24 after questioning how medication to regulate her menstrual cycle would impact her, particularly as a woman. This moment prompted her to recognize her own interest in the broader field of women’s health and medicine.
“Women weren’t always considered in the making of medication or for clinical trials,” she said, sharing that through her research, she first encountered the term “bikini medicine,” an archaic notion that females and males are biologically similar except in the area covered by a bikini.
Eliza found herself immediately challenging this idea. “Women have different hormones and different make-ups, so medications can impact us differently. Women also tend to have more autoimmune illnesses,” she explained. “So, every doctor should know about women’s health because general health is women’s health.”
Eliza’s questioning led her to pursue a summer program through Wake Forest University’s Women’s Medicine Program, as well as a three-week lab program offered by the New Hampshire Academy of Science's Applied Scientific Research Program (NHAS).
She was able to attend both programs as a recipient of a Cullman Scholarship, a KUA program designed to provide students with off-campus study opportunities in their field of interest. The scholarship, now in its 40th year, was established in 1983 by Hugh Cullman ’42. Each year, students in their sophomore or junior years apply to pursue a summer opportunity.
The program helped her hone in on what excites her professionally. “I found out I don’t want to be a doctor,” she admitted with a laugh, explaining that she felt both dizzy and nauseous at witnessing multiple surgical procedures during her online participation with Wake Forest University. Instead, Eliza directed her interests toward biomedical research.
For three weeks, Eliza conducted her own research in the NHAS lab, studying the habituation behaviors of C. elegans, also known as microscopic worms. Their similar genetic make-up to humans and very short lifespans makes these creatures ideal to study in a lab, particularly when trying to understand the impact of medication on the human body.
Eliza wanted to determine if these worms could eventually habituate or adapt to the sensation of vibration. In their typical environment, C. elegans are terrified of vibration, as it signals a predator is just above where they live, a few inches below ground soil.
Thus, when exposed to pulsing sensations, the worms will thrash around in fear and panic. Understanding this behavior, Eliza, along with other students from different high schools but part of the same NHAS program, studied the worms to see how habituated they could become to frequent vibrations, stimulated by electric toothbrushes. The goal was to reach a point where the worms became completely comfortable with the sensation and accordingly, didn’t react at all.
But it didn’t end there. Using her knowledge and interest in women’s health, Eliza had a further test she wanted to conduct.
“There’s science to indicate that antihistamines can impact your memory and may be associated with dementia,” she said, explaining that females are much more likely to use antihistamines, particularly with menstrual symptoms. She then chose to test the theory of habituation as a type of memory loss.
Using her Cullman as a jumping-off point, Eliza now continues this research as part of her STEM Scholar Capstone. Her research work with NHAS provided the field experience points needed for her capstone project - the lab work she conducted on C. elegans. In addition, earlier this year, Eliza and five other STEM scholars presented their initial research findings during a poster presentation.
With nearly six months left until graduation, the KUA senior is thrilled to see what her future holds. “My plans are to major in biology and figure out the rest of the details of my life and what I really want to do as I go through college,” she said, sharing that her Cullman experience helped solidify an understanding of her passions and interests.  
“It helped me more accurately figure out what’s in my future,” she explained. “When you’re networking and interacting and doing things in a lab, it helps you figure out where you can take your passions outside of high school.”