Elon senior looks forward to medical school, eager to join front lines of health service

Olivia Duffield ’20 gained undergraduate research opportunity and important mentorship through the Elon College Fellows program and Glen Raven Undergraduate Research Grant.

As Olivia Duffield ’20 wraps up final classes before graduation, she’s monitoring the global COVID-19 pandemic like everyone else. But while watching events at medical centers unfold from a distance, she yearns to join the courageous health care providers on the frontlines of a global pandemic.

“I wish I was one of them. I want to be out there instead of sitting in the house,” says Duffield, who is from Philadelphia. “I think they’re so brave.”

In a few years, she might be joining her heroes on the frontlines. Duffield, who will receive a degree in biochemistry from Elon on May 22, will continue her studies at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University during the summer. She became interested in medicine because it combines two of her passions: science and providing aid to those in need.

“I wanted to be able to apply science to helping people. It is deeply ingrained in me,” Duffield says.

Both interests are foundational to her time at Elon. She arrived on campus with an Elon College Honors Fellows scholarship. She is also a GlaxoSmithKline Women in Science Scholar and was awarded the Glen Raven Endowment for Undergraduate Research. Together, these scholarships made a significant impact on her complex and expensive cell biology research, conducted with faculty mentor Yuko Miyamoto. Deepening funding for student scholarships, providing access to the Elon Experiences programs such as Undergraduate Research and support for faculty mentors are three top priorities of the $250 million Elon LEADS Campaign.

“My Elon College Fellows and Presidential scholarships were two of the main reasons that I chose Elon. I knew going into college that I wanted to go to professional school, so attending an affordable undergraduate university was really important to me to be able to save as much money as I could for graduate-level education,” Duffield says. “I would not have been able to conduct my research without the grants that I received from Fellows and Glen Raven so scholarships also played an integral role in my ability to conduct research.”

Duffield has divided her time at Elon between academics, rigorous research and public service. In April, she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. She is also a member of the National Chemistry Honor Society and Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honor society. Her volunteer work includes directing Elon’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity for three years and receiving the Campus Compact Service Award in 2019. In addition, she volunteers with a food pantry and clothing closet in Alamance County. At the moment, she serves as office manager for Elon’s Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement location in downtown Burlington.

Olivia Duffield ’20 pictured with Leslie Garvin, executive director of North Carolina Campus Compact.

With such an impressive resume already, it’s no surprise she’s eager to dive into a field where the immediate need is so great.

“I definitely have experienced a lot of privilege in my life and I recognize that. It’s my responsibility to serve, and medicine is a great way to do that,” Duffield says. “It’s a privilege to serve people when they are at their most vulnerable.”

An inquiring mind

Duffield says she’s always loved science because it’s about knowledge and discovery.

“I like to understand how my body works on a molecular level, and I like to be able to understand and explain the ‘why’ behind things like diseases or differences in traits between people,” Duffield says. “In a similar vein, that’s what is so cool about research. To be able to create new knowledge that could potentially answer a ‘why’ question or help other researchers create a new therapy for a disease.”

Duffield’s interest in research led her to Elon. She first heard about Elon through a neighbor whose son attended the university and recommended she take a look. On a visit to North Carolina, she toured Elon, Duke and Wake Forest. She chose Elon because of its dedication to undergraduate research and receiving the Elon College Honors Fellows scholarship, which facilitates research and faculty mentorship for high-achieving students in a cohort atmosphere.

“What solidified Elon for me was the Fellows program. I was really interested in doing research. I was interested in science and going into a medical field. The small class sizes really appealed to me,” Duffield says. “Research is an opportunity not many undergraduates at other universities get to do. I was excited by the opportunity.”

During her first year, Duffield met Miyamoto by taking one of her classes. Miyamoto, associate professor of biology, specializes in immunology and cell biology, as well as cell signaling. She became Duffield’s faculty mentor and helped shepherd the highly technical cell research Duffield planned to take on.

“The research she wanted to do is expensive. The Undergraduate Research Grant-in-Aid, Fellows program, the Glen Raven Endowment and the GlaxoSmithKline Women in Science Scholarship really helped her, and it’s what makes Elon distinct for students,” Miyamoto says. “Because Elon is undergraduate-focused, the students think about the projects themselves and then carry out the research, rather than what happens at R1 universities, where students become part of a project developed in the lab by a postdoc or primary researcher. Olivia had to be the one to do it all. The funds made it possible for her to explore her research question.”

The formal title of Duffield’s research is “Evaluating the Migration of T cells after Treatment with P13K and mTOR Inhibitors.” It sounds complex because it is. The studies involve proteins and their impact on human immune systems, including cancer cells.

“My research involves live cells in a lab, which requires supervision,” Duffield says. “The cells have to be carefully managed. You have to go in and change their media, count them, make sure it’s not getting too crowded. It takes a bit more time.”

Miyamoto’s mentorship has been pivotal to Duffield’s success. Teacher and student interact regularly, including weekends, Duffield says. Miyamoto was especially helpful in Duffield clearing a hurdle in her research. While attending a conference on cell biology, Miyamoto encountered a colleague who was working on the same kind of protein Duffield is studying. They compared notes and found that both had encountered the same problem. The colleague recommended using a different inhibitor — an agent that slows or interferes with a chemical reaction. Miyamoto says she helped Duffield obtain funds to buy the inhibitor through the Glen Raven Endowment for Undergraduate Research by showing her how to write effectively about her research.

“She has to articulate how to explain the science. After a while, students forget the non-science part of things. They need to write in a way that explains how you’re putting one foot in front of the other in order to demonstrate the path you are taking with the research,” Miyamoto says. “We go back and forth. She writes a section then sends it to me and I tell her what needs to be written in a certain way, if it needs more detail here and less detail there. This will help after she leaves Elon in describing the needs for a certain type of funding in science or medicine.”

“She’s really helpful with the writing,” Duffield says. “She always hits the nail on the head with things I have trouble explaining to a lay audience.”

Sometimes the mentorship goes beyond the lab and classroom. Miyamoto noticed that Duffield can get so wrapped up in her studies that she forgets to eat and starts snacking on candy. In response, Miyamoto makes sure healthy food is available for Duffield to eat.

“That is the Elon way,” Miyamoto says. “I brought some stuff from Costco for her to have so she can keep going and not starve between classes and live on candy. I told Olivia, ‘that’s not a good practice.’”

A lifelong learner

Duffield had enough credits to graduate in May without taking any courses this spring, but she wanted to expand her studies and her knowledge. She’s finishing her time at Elon by taking two courses. One is a senior capstone: Perspectives on Women’s Health. She also decided to take Medical Anthropology because “it gives me a different perspective on health and how culture impacts health care trajectories.”

Meanwhile, she continues to converse regularly with Miyamoto via Zoom, WebEx teleconferencing or by phone. The online-only classwork isn’t an impediment to Duffield’s lab research because Miyamoto is always available and “because of the kind of researcher Olivia is,” Miyamoto says.

“She’s kind of learning for her own knowledge,” Miyamoto says. “Lifelong learning? Definitely Olivia embraces that.”

Duffield says she loves the four years she spent at Elon and is so grateful for the education she received from her professors that she went around campus and thanked them all. “I got such great instruction from them,” she says.

Duffield is eagerly awaiting her start in medical school. As part of her application and the admissions process she participated in online chats and video conferences through the medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit. During a Zoom meeting with incoming students at Wayne State, Duffield met a physician’s assistant at a hospital in Detroit who handles a high number of severe COVID-19 cases, many arriving too late to be helped.

“She said when it was bad, she cried every day,” Duffield says. “People get so sick so fast and in some cases there is not much we can do for them.”

One thing she does know is that she’s ready to emerge from the lab and improve the health of those she hopes to serve.

“In the lab I feel kind of lonely. I love talking to people, and I love meeting people. I wanted to combine my love of science with helping people and leading them to better health,” she says. “I really want to work with underserved populations.”