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Maroon immersion

Posted 8:56 a.m. Friday, May 3, 2024

Vanessa Mbuyi Kaja, ‘21, is a cellular and molecular biology graduate student who will graduate in May. Mbuyi earned an undergraduate degree from UWL in microbiology.

Mentorship was key to unlocking May grad’s opportunities from graduate research to teaching assistantship 

Vanessa Mbuyi Kaja’s journey from a young, science-oriented student in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a graduate student, teacher assistant and researcher at UW-La Crosse started with a color: maroon.  

Mbuyi saw the color on a brochure at her English as a Second Language school (ESL) in Madison, Wisconsin, and it reminded her of her Congolese high school’s own beautiful color.  Students on the glossy cover were dressed in maroon caps and gowns, celebrating their graduation from UW-La Crosse.  

While the brochure was eye catching, Mbuyi’s interest in UWL deepened as she discovered UWL’s robust science programs years later when she was finishing her community college education in Madison. Her Botany Professor told her UWL was the place to go if she wanted to pursue biology

Mbuyi learned first-hand about UWL’s science programs when she arrived on campus in 2017. A microbiology program graduate, she had such a good undergraduate experience, she decided to return to UWL to earn her graduate degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology. She was even able to continue with the same research mentor, exploring different avenues of his lab’s research on human blood platelets.  

“I love the city and the school — that's what has kept me here, as well as my research mentor I’ve had since I was an undergraduate,” says Mbuyi. "At UW-La Crosse the professors are open to just being there for students. I think it is true when they say they put the students first.”  

From mentee to mentor

Vanessa Mbuyi Kaja, ‘21, says a big benefit of returning as a graduate school student is continuing the relationships she had as an undergraduate student. She is also grateful for her Research Mentor Scott Cooper and her Advisor Miranda Panzer. Cooper has helped open many doors, including graduate research and teaching positions. Panzer has been a constant listening ear. “Whenever I have anything going on I will go to her, and she is always supportive and helpful,” says Mbuyi. 

Mbuyi studied with her mentor, Biology Professor Scott Cooper, as an undergraduate and graduate student and then transitioned into becoming a mentor herself. She was responsible for mentoring eight lab students her first year as a graduate student and mentored two new students her second year, training them in all the lab techniques she has learned over the years in Cooper’s lab.  

“In my lab she was a good mentor to new students and took extra time to make sure everyone was involved and understood the project,” says Cooper. 

Two and half years ago, Mbuyi asked Cooper about potential job opportunities to serve as a lab assistant, potentially maintaining and organizing lab equipment. He instead connected her with a part-time teaching assistant position opportunity in the Biology Department.  

The idea initially made Mbuyi feel nervous.  

“I remember I called my family. I wanted to tell them I cannot do this. I have never taught, and English is not my first language. But the support they give in the Biology Department is what motivated me to teach,” she says. “Also, my family was very supportive. They reminded me of what I accomplished as an undergraduate, including giving the commencement address. They said, ‘You can teach. Don't discourage yourself.’” 

Starting in January 2022, Mbuyi taught for a total of five semesters including Bio 105: Introduction to Biology and Bio 100: Biology for the Informed Citizen Laboratory sections.  

“Vanessa had really good evaluations,” says Cooper. “She is very engaged with her students and goes out of her way to explain things clearly.”  

Mbuyi mirrored some of her own mentors’ behavior. 

“I saw when I was teaching, I was putting my students first too. If they were not understanding or if they needed extra help, I would meet them where they were.” 

At the end of April, Mbuyi taught her last class at UWL. 

“It makes me sad that this is my last class,” she says reflecting on her two and half years as a teacher. “It is rewarding seeing students improving — seeing them the first day being quiet and then, over time, participating and giving answers as the semester goes on. Now, whenever I see them around campus, they say ‘hi.’ They stop and talk to me.” 

Learning what research is all about 

UWL Biology Professor Scott Cooper

Mbuyi says her research mentor, Cooper, is a good teacher and one who is always willing to welcome new students into his research lab – sometimes mentoring up to 20 students in his lab at a time.  

She recalls when Cooper, then director of UWL Undergraduate Research & Creativity, first visited with her and one other international student as part of their initial orientation to campus back in 2017.   

He shared undergraduate research opportunities available on campus and invited her to join his lab. Mbuyi didn’t know what undergraduate research was, but she decided to give it a try. That first lab experience felt a bit overwhelming as she hadn’t taken any UWL science courses yet. But after a year, she decided to join Cooper’s lab as a UWL junior and has been involved in the same lab now for four years.  

“When I returned, I didn’t feel like I was just pipetting and going through the motions in the lab. I could read the research protocols and understand how to execute the experiment, as well as understand why certain chemicals were being used,” she says. “Research has also made me more curious about a lot of topics. Whenever we have students presenting on diverse things like physiology or aquatic science, I go. I want to get educated.” 

Along the way, Mbuyi has continued her own graduate research project, culminating with the presentation of her dissertation on how to extend the longevity of human blood platelets as they can only be stored at room temperature for five days. Her project focused on understanding how cold temperatures affect blood platelets in both humans and 13-lined ground squirrels. Platelets are small cells in our body that help stop bleeding by forming clots. When temperatures drop, especially during winter, platelets in humans can become more prone to a process called apoptosis, also known as programmed cell death. This can have negative effects on our health. However, 13-lined ground squirrels, which hibernate during winter, have evolved a way to prevent this cold-induced cell death in their platelets. By studying these squirrels, she hoped to uncover the mechanisms they use to protect their platelets from cold-induced apoptosis. Understanding these mechanisms could potentially lead to new treatments or therapies for conditions related to blood clotting. While the answer to this question requires further study, Mbuyi’s research has led to finding a suitable research method to use for future experiments. 

“People say bigger graduate schools may have more opportunity, but I think UWL has those opportunities,” says Mbuyi.  “And I’m able to keep the smaller classes, and I have the ability to talk to my instructor and go to office hours. Most of all, I’ve been able to keep the relationships I made as an undergraduate. And those connections have been really important.” 


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