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From Research Rookie to Lincoln Laureate

November 1, 2013
Sarah Stuebing

Sarah Stuebing

Sarah Stuebing can walk from her childhood home to her college campus in a matter of minutes.

The path she chose at Northern Illinois University put the world at her feet.

Since enrolling at NIU in 2010, she has been the model of the engaged student. She has conducted original scholarly research, cultivated a series of faculty mentors, studied abroad twice, worked as an ambassador for the university, created a new club and volunteered in the community – all while earning grades that put her near the top of her class.

Along the way she has accrued a collection of scholarships, awards and accolades, but none so impressive as her latest title, Student Lincoln Laureate. That honor is given annually to one senior at each university in the state for their excellence, both inside and outside of the classroom. Recipients from around the state will be honored at a reception Saturday, Nov. 2, with the governor.

Those who have grown to know and work with Stuebing over the last four years say she epitomizes all that the award is intended to honor.

“I have been at NIU for 10 years and have yet to meet an undergraduate student who approaches Sarah’s level of engagement in curricular and co-curricular activities,” says psychology professor Doug Wallace, who nominated her for the award.

Going to college in her hometown was viewed by some as taking “the easy way,” she admits, but she brought a can-do attitude to campus from the day she arrived. “I came in with the mindset that I was going to make the most of everything NIU had to offer me.”

The first opportunity she seized was to become part of the university’s first class of Research Rookies, a program that gave 17 freshmen the chance to participate in research with faculty. A competitive horseback rider since childhood, she devised original research to explore whether the specialized massage techniques she had learned actually improved the performance of her horse. As the project evolved she learned how to write proposals, design experiments, analyze data and even mastered video editing software developed by television networks to analyze world-class athletes.

Sarah StuebingThe experience, she says, set the stage for what followed.

“Research Rookies pretty much shaped my whole college career,” Stuebing says. “Without that start, I believe my college experience would have been very different. It influenced many projects I have tackled since and helped me find mentors who still provide me guidance today.”

While her freshman year was, in some ways, as academically rigorous as that of many graduate students, for Stuebing it was just a warm-up. During her sophomore year, she worked with an anthropology professor, devising a project to study the facial expressions of black howler monkeys, and then secured three different grants totaling $5,500 to fund a trip to Argentina so that she could spend her summer doing field work.

Later that year, Stuebing, a biology major who hopes to become a veterinarian, co-founded the NIU Pre-Veterinary Medicine Association. She has served as the organization president since its founding, organizing field trips, recruiting speakers and arranging other activities to help educate the 15 to 20 students who join each year. NIU Acting Provost Lisa Freeman, who serves as faculty adviser to the group, says that Steubing is one of the most outstanding students she has encountered in her academic career, which has include stops at schools such as Kansas State, Ohio State and Cornell.

“She is dedicated not only to the pursuit and application of new knowledge, but also to building community and engaging others around her varied interests,” Freeman says.

Starting sophomore year, those interests were focused on work in Wallace’s neuroscience lab, where she quickly became an important member of his research team. Her contributions include running rats through various testing protocols, assisting with surgical procedures to study the rodents’ brain tissue and analyzing data. The work became the basis for her Honors capstone project (which she wrapped up her junior year) and enabled her to present at scientific conferences at NIU, a regional conference at Indiana University and at an international conference in New Orleans. She is listed as a co-author on several of Wallace’s publications.

She continued working in the lab throughout her junior year, and was able to extend her research into the summer between junior and senior years when she once again became an academic pioneer, this time as one of NIU’s first group of 10 McKearn Summer Scholars. The program not only allowed her to extend her Alzheimer’s-related research but also enabled her to tap into a new network of alumni mentors and participate in a leadership academy.

Sarah StuebingNot all of her energies were poured into the classroom and laboratories, however.

Despite her rigorous academic pursuits (which included a minor in Spanish and a minor in chemistry) Stuebing also made time to serve as president of Presbyterian Campus Ministries, traveled to Louisiana on spring break with a Habitat for Humanity group, served as a speaker at the Academic Convocation and taught horseback riding and Sunday School on the side.

Her activities also included serving as a Northern Lights Ambassador, a role that allowed her to speak with potential students at open houses and to serve on panel discussions about engaged learning opportunities at NIU and to network with alumni. Typically, she used those platforms as a chance to evangelize about engaged learning.

“I have seen what a huge difference engaged learning has made in my education, and everyone else I know who has been involved in it,” she says. “It is the difference between just having a degree and having a degree with experience. It is something that has prepared me to pursue my goals and career in a way that nothing else could have.”

This semester, her pursuits have taken her out of the country, to the University of Sterling, in central Scotland, where she is studying biology. She has also taking advantage of her time in Europe to visit family in Germany (she was born there and is fluent in the language) and to introduce fellow American classmates to life on the continent.

She will be back stateside in December, but not for long. She has secured another grant to return to Argentina to continue her howler monkey research – but that trip could be in peril, depending upon her schedule of interviews at veterinary schools.

After all, getting into a top veterinary program has been her aim from Day One on the NIU campus, a goal from which she has never wavered. However, all that she has learned and done while at NIU has changed her desired career track a bit. Her goal now is to enroll in a program that will allow her to jointly earn a degree as a doctor of veterinary medicine, as well as a Ph.D., so that she can continue conducting research. Ultimately, she would like to study outbreaks of diseases such as bird flu or swine flu for Centers for Disease Control.

“I would love to make a difference on a grander scale,” she says.

Julia Spears, associate vice provost for Engaged Learning, whose oversight includes oversight of Research Rookies and the Northern Lights Ambassadors, has known Stuebing since the start.

“Sarah embodies the ideals represented by a Student Lincoln Laureate,” Spears says. “Her participation in research and service programs is a clear indication of her focus on actively bettering her community and campus. She is truly capable of great things, and I look forward to seeing what more she will accomplish.”