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, where he served both large animals and small animals. I spent summers on the ranch in Illinois with my grandparents, and I spent most of my time at “the clinic” observing in the operating room and working in the lab. I distinctly remember wearing scrubs and a lab coat and looking at parasites under the microscope with my him. These experiences were the beginning of my interest in science.

Later, I began my undergraduate studies at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, and I eventually transferred to Creighton University. I was a biology major and pre-med, which required numerous courses in physics, chemistry, and math, in addition to biology. I distinctly remember being very 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 to find that I loved organic chemistry, so much so that I rejected my acceptance to medical school and began a chemistry PhD program at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

During my graduate work I became interested in applying organic chemistry to biology, and through my research, I came to know Carolyn R. Bertozzi, a Nobel Laureate nominee who founded the field of bioorthogonal chemistry. I asked her to be my mentor, as a Preparing Future Faculty Fellow, and she agreed. I shadowed her during her tenure at the University of California – Berkeley and joined her lab for my postdoctoral training initially at University of California – Berkeley and then at Stanford in 2015. At that point, I switched my emphasis to cancer immunology with an emphasis in glycobiology, specifically with the interest of understanding how cancers utilize certain sugar residues to evade the body’s immune system.

I completed my postdoctoral training, and I went on the job market after living and studying on the West Coast for three years. 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. I was attracted to the history of the state, I was very interested in being closer to family, and overall, I was seeking a more well-rounded life; I grew tired of the lengthy commute in California, especially after the arrival of my son, who was born during my postdoctoral training. 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 and teach, too, which was important to me, and I 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 is dedication to research and earning numerous accolades within the science community, including funded research opportunities, publications, and awards. Most of the students working with me have interest in the medical field or in graduate studies, and when seeking students to research in the RAWC Lab, no major is off-limits to me; my only concern is that a student is passionate about 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 general, what I know to be true is that there are a lot of students who are interested in science and enjoy demonstrations and lab experiments. However, many are intimidated by certain fields of science, like chemistry. It’s important to do these outreach efforts to show students that science is fun, and that there’s a lot of 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 literally everything. As a scientist, you’re earning a living by asking questions that are of interest to you and we find the answers, which is amazing. Science and scientist are integral to our community because there exist problems that need solutions in every facet of society. We need more scientists interested in answering them. I would like to impress up students at every level to understand that anytime you’re asking questions and looking for the solution, you are engaging in science, furthermore, you’re engaging in and advancing science. Science is embedded in many fields, whether a scientist, a medical doctor, or a plumber, who considers liquids and pressures, science is being utilized.