Chemist and cancer researcher finds ‘well-rounded life’ at SDSU

by Sara J. Gillis, Director of Talent & Workforce Development
Published 01/28/2020

Tell us about yourself, including when your interest in science began, your education and research experience, and what led you to your current position as Assistant Professor and founder of the RAWC Lab at South Dakota State University.

My name is Dr. Rachel Willand-Charnley. My interest in science began in the lab of my grandfather’s veterinary clinic. He served both large and small animals. I would spend summers on “the ranch” in Illinois with my grandparents. During this time, I would go to “the clinic,” where I would watch him in the operating room and in his lab. I distinctly remember wearing scrubs and a lab coat while looking at parasites from various “patients” under the microscope. This was the beginning of my interest in science.

Later, I began my undergraduate studies at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha prior to transferring to Creighton University. During my time at Creighton, I was a biology major and pre-med. I distinctly remember being nervous to take organic chemistry, so much so, I delayed taking the course until my junior year. Then, and even now, it is rumored to be a “weed-out course” for pre-professionals due to the difficulty of the course. I was surprised, pleasantly, to find that I truly loved organic chemistry. I ultimately declined my acceptance to medical school to join a PhD program at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln in chemistry.

During my graduate work I became interested in applying the concepts of organic chemistry to biology. It was during this time that I came to know Dr. Carolyn R. Bertozzi, a Nobel Laureate nominee, who, as it turned out, developed a field in line with my interests, the field of bioorthogonal chemistry. As a Preparing Future Faculty Fellow, I asked her to be my mentor, she agreed. I shadowed her during her tenure at the University of California – Berkeley and joined her lab as a postdoctoral research fellow initially at University of California – Berkeley and then at Stanford in 2015. During this time, I began performing research in cancer immunology with an emphasis in glycobiology (the study of sugars). Being at the intersect of these two disciplines I was able to investigate how cancers utilize certain sugar residues to evade the body’s immune system.

Towards the end of my postdoc I went onto “the (job) market” in search of a faculty position. As a native Midwesterner who was born in Chicago and grew up in Papillion, Nebraska, I wanted to establish myself at an institution that was closer to home. South Dakota State University intrigued me. Personally, I was attracted to the history of the state and the proximity it offered our families. In addition, I was seeking a more well-rounded life. Living in California, an amazing state, meant lengthy commutes, high rent, expensive child-care, the list goes on. After the arrival of my son, who was born during my postdoctoral training, I became painfully aware of how inconvenient my life had become. My personal goals aside, I also knew that I needed to find an academic department that was performing cutting-edge research to advance science. South Dakota State University was an amazing fit personally and professionally.  I’m able to have a strong research program, in addition to teaching, which was important to me. I am honors and chemistry major’s organic chemistry professor. I also work with colleagues who truly are advancing and contributing to the world of science.

What is the mission or goal of the RAWC Lab’s research? How are postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate researchers involved in the work of the RAWC Lab? What majors or career pathways are ideal fits for research assistants in the RAWC Lab?

The overall mission is to advance the field of science and to perform cutting-edge research that addresses health related issues our society is facing. I currently have ten students working with me, and they differ in areas of study – chemistry majors, pre-med/professional, and others – and in their level of education – undergraduates, graduate students, and a postdoctoral researcher. What these students have in common, however, is their interest in science. They are all very dedicated to their research. All of my undergraduates have earned some type of accolade, whether it be an award within the science community or research funding. All are working on submitting publications currently. Most of the students working with me have interest in the medical field or in graduate studies. When seeking students to perform research in the RAWC Lab, no major is off-limits to me. I care that the student is passionate about research and shows a determination, both are needed to perform research. I believe in promoting the importance of good research, and that one major key to advancing science is embracing diversity – different minds can offer different perspectives. I don’t like to pigeonhole anyone.

Describe the RAWC Lab’s outreach efforts to inspire the next generation of scientists, including your involvement with SD EPSCoR. Why are outreach efforts like this vital to the future of scientific research?

I’m involved in various outreach activities as part of my work. This year, I’ve participated in South Dakota’s EPSCoR Communicating Science to the General Public Fellowship, Summer Scholars Week, Women in Science, and various committee work. I’m also involved with SD EPSCoR’s STEM Education Portal, which allows teachers and students around the state to complete online STEM lab modules and connect to a scientist, like myself, to discuss research and answer questions about what it’s like to be a scientist in South Dakota. I’m also interested in developing a Chemistry Day at SDSU.

In my experience, many students are interested in science, however, many are intimidated by certain fields of science, like chemistry. As a result, outreach is very important in order to help students become more comfortable with the STEM sciences. In addition, it is important to impart the many avenues available through science. If you don’t “know,” you aren’t going to “do,” as such it is important to give people the opportunity to be exposed to these amazing things – people don’t realize that you can do ANYTHING with science.

What is one message that you’d like to share with today’s secondary or post-secondary students in regards to scientific research and the future of STEM careers?

The message I most want to share is that with science, opportunities are limited only by your curiosity. Whether people realize it or not, you have disciplines like chemistry and physics that can explain many, if not every, event(s). As a scientist, you’re earning a living by asking questions that are of interest to you. This is amazing! Science and scientist are integral to our community because problems exist that need solutions in every facet of society. We need more scientists interested in answering them. I would like to impress up students (and society), at every level, that anytime you’re asking questions, forming hypothesis, and looking for the solution, you are engaging in science, that you are a scientist. In reality, we are all scientist, every day. At times a scientist comes in the form of a mother attempting to answer why her baby is crying, or a medical doctor investigating their patient’s ailment, or a plumber, who considers liquids and pressures. We are all scientists in one form or another.