This Sets Me Apart

August 11th, 2015 | SMWC

Student completes, reflects on first Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship

By: Katie Shane

Dulce Chavez in lab
Dulce Chavez, environmental science/chemistry major and Gioannini Fellow, along with Dr. Jerry Weiss and Dr. Brita J Kilburg-Basnyat.

As the calendar turns to August, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) students prepare to wrap up their summer break, returning to campus and classes.

For SMWC senior Dulce Chavez, the summer months were anything but a break.

But Chavez says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

For the last 10 weeks, Chavez has represented SMWC at the University of Iowa as The Woods’ first recipient of the Dr. Theresa L. Gioannini Endowment for Women in Science. With the endowment, SMWC offered Chavez a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

“I feel that I got a lot of out of it,” Chavez explains. “I had exposure to an opportunity beyond The Woods. I had the chance to learn to be more self-critical as a scientist; I had access to people that know so much more than me, and I could ask questions and really learn.”

The environmental science/chemistry major spent the summer working alongside Jerry Weiss, Ph.D., who has a personal connection to The Woods and the Endowment; Dr. Theresa L. Gioannini is his late wife. Gioannini, a 1971 graduate from SMWC, passed away on January 4, 2014, after a two and a half year battle with Multiple Myeloma. The rare form of cancer affects plasma cells and weakens bones.

After his wife passed, Weiss and his two sons, Gregory and Douglas, established the endowment to continue Gioannini’s legacy, memory and dedication to women in science. Weiss visited SMWC’s campus last summer and felt moved to give back to the place his wife cherished.

“I went with Theresa’s niece last summer, during that time the campus was essentially empty. There was a sense of intimacy, I found myself reflecting on Theresa and the person I knew,” he explains. “While we were there it hit me and should have hit me before; that was a special place to Theresa. What better way than to show the impact of her life to students, to give students the opportunity to do what she had the opportunity to do.”

In May 2015, the inaugural endowment was awarded to Chavez, a native of Cicero, Ill., who like Gioannini is a first-generation college student. Weiss says the two Pomeroys also share many other similarities.

Dulce Chavez with Dr. Weiss
Dulce Chavez and Dr. Jerry Weiss at the University of Iowa.

“I think (Chavez) had personality qualities that were like Theresa; a quiet self-confidence.” Weiss explains. “She was extremely methodical in her thinking and so eager to learn.”

Alongside Weiss and Dr. Peter Thorne, Chavez conducted experiments at the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center at the University of Iowa. Chavez explains the project focused on testing and development of a method for detecting and identifying bioactive Gram-negative bacterial endotoxins in organic dusts.

The subject may sound confusing to some, but for Chavez the hands-on-experience was thrilling and unlike anything she had been exposed to before.

“It helped me develop more confidence in that type of work and trying to solve problems myself, but have peers to help me,” she explains of her time in the lab. “Just being in that environment; no one was ever fighting, but there were times when everybody was expressing different opinions, it offered more than just what I know.”
Not only was the experience a growing process professionally, but personally. The University of Iowa, a Big Ten school, is vastly larger than the SMWC campus and offers a more traditional “college town” feel in Iowa City.

“It was much, much different,” Chavez says with a laugh.

“Being here changed her view on college and university life,” Weiss says of Chavez. “The level of research activity was something she hadn’t been involved in at all... Her peer group was different; she lived with other summer students. That was quite different and the culture of Iowa City is wonderful; the summer is a special time with arts, theatre and numerous activities.”

The University of Iowa may have given Chavez a new perspective and extraordinary experience, but the Woodsie says there’s no place like “home.”

“To represent The Woods made me proud,” she says. “I was happy to say that I am from The Woods and this is what we do and put out a good representation of our school.”

Entering her final year at The Woods, Chavez says her recent experience in Iowa will build upon the lessons and experience she has already gained at The Woods. She says she looks forward to reconnecting with fellow students, faculty and staff in a place she calls a “community.” The momentum she’s feeling also has her excited when talking about her future plans.

“My plans for this year? Well, I would like to graduate,” she says with a laugh. “I want to get started on prerequisites for environmental engineering… I plan to work towards finishing my education, I’m really motivated to do well, to gain more experience in that field.”

As she looks to continue her education, not only will the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship be impressive to other universities, but Chavez will also be able to add a publication to her list of experience. Weiss and other colleagues from Iowa will publish a paper this fall, which will include Chavez as a contributor.

“This sets me apart,” she says of the fellowship. “It puts me in a group of people that have done research fellowships like this one. There are so many other students that have also worked on research, but this will put me a step ahead.”

Reflecting on the summer himself, Weiss says Gioannini would have been “unhappy” about the attention the endowment paid to her, but ultimately happy that it was contributing to the success of a fellow Woodsie. With her foundation laid at The Woods and hands-on experience gained at the University of Iowa, Weiss says Chavez has only great success ahead.

“Hopefully she views this as windows opening and takes it wherever she wants to take it.”