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Meet the NIU Foundation’s next Student Star: Evan Wittke (’14) fights cancer with research

June 19, 2012
Evan Wittke

Evan Wittke

It all began with an email from the Huskie Research Rookies program.

It was an invitation that changed biology major Evan Wittke’s first-year experience as a Huskie into something extraordinary – not only for him, but perhaps someday, for the world.

For Wittke, the title “Research Rookie” meant he could join biology professor Barrie Bode in his lab to work on his ground-breaking cancer research. Bode’s investigation seeks to explain the complex role of amino acid transporters in human cancer cell growth and survival.

It might sound incredible for a first-year college student to have such great opportunity, but that’s exactly what the Huskie Research Rookies program does: link undergraduate students with faculty mentors in their major to conduct small-scale research.

Wittke says he was immediately impressed with Bode, whom he calls “an amazing research mentor.”

From Day One, the student-faculty duo has been collaborating to research the responses of human liver cancer cells to various environmental factors. “The main goal of Evan’s project was to identify unique metabolic properties of cancer cells,” Bode says.

“It’s all very complicated in terms of molecular biology,” Wittke adds, “but my project yielded data that was intriguing.”

The Huskie Research Rookies is one of several programs that create the type of engaged learning experience that has become a hallmark of NIU. The program has gained a great deal of attention from the campus community, local media, alumni and donors.

Longtime NIU supporters Jaymie and Harry Simmon provide funding for the program.

“Research is a key ingredient in the university’s future, and it’s brilliant that NIU has made engaged learning a top priority,” Jaymie Simmon says. “Providing students research opportunities will change the course of their academic experiences and will prepare them to go out and make our world better. It’s a privilege to be involved.”

Barrie Bode

Barrie Bode

Everyone involved in the program agrees it’s a privilege. “Evan has learned more about scientific research in the last year than many students learn in their entire four years,” Bode says.

Of course, it isn’t only students who win; professors like Bode benefit by getting talented students into the lab right from the start of their academic careers.

Looking back, however, Wittke says, “It’s been an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“I absolutely love working in the lab,” the promising biology major says. “Without the Research Rookies program, I am not sure if I would have been able to enrich my education through research and experience the joy of being at the forefront of scientific discovery.”

Learn more about Wittke’s experience in the newest NIU Foundation Student Star video, part of a series that features students reaching exceptional heights at NIU thanks, in great part, to private support.