“When I got the award, it came as a huge surprise. I was stunned and excited. It gave me a confidence in my research that I didn’t have before.”
Stirring rods, funnels, a balance, pipets, and test tubes beckon from a counter. Boxes of common kitchen ingredients, including gummy bears, corn starch, and giant wooden spoons line other shelves. Well-loved graduated cylinders and beakers wait their turn, perched at the end of a workbench.
She carefully lifts one of the dozens of glass containers from the dusty shelf crammed with similar gallon-sized vessels. She studies the bottle’s label, then raises the flask to the light, admiring the turquoise-colored chemical inside. Containers brimming with liquids of multiple hues overflow an entire wall of shelves in this storeroom hidden among the labyrinth of hallways that wend their way through the basement of Fulmer Hall.
Another wall features thank you notes scrawled by first- and second-graders, a hint of her devotion to introducing young minds to the delights and wonders of her world.
She laughs, quietly but confidently, explaining to a visitor that most of the chemicals lining the shelves are considered dangerous. But the usual safety features are in place: fume hoods and safety goggles and rubber gloves. And, after all, this is her home turf, a place as familiar and comfortable to her as her family’s home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
She tucks the bottle back on the shelf, turns, and walks quickly to the other side of the room, where white lab coats hang on pegs in a neat row. She slips on a coat and smiles as she begins to describe the joy she’s experienced here dozens of times. Though, she also acknowledges, the journey to achieving that satisfaction can sometimes unleash a dizzying jumble of feelings, feelings that veer from intimidation and frustration and failure, to hopefulness and wonder and unbridled happiness at finally reaching the promised land of discovery and understanding.
This room is simply a grown-up version of the playground she embraced as a child, years marked by the delight derived from creating explosions with Coke and Mentos, observing potato roots in boxes straining toward the light, and fashioning a variety of school science fair projects. It’s in settings like this that she laid the foundation for her adult self, now graduated to teasing out clues about the proteins involved in the growth of prostate cancer cells.
All of these experiences helped 2015 WSU graduate Bree Berg accomplish a first. In February 2014, she became the first Washington State student ever—and just 1 of 10 students nationwide—selected by the American Association for Cancer Research (AARC) to receive the 2014-15 Thomas F. Bardos Science Research Education Award, an honor recognizing the potential of exceptional next-generation scientists.
“I always knew I wanted to be a science major. My other focus is, I’ve always wanted to go into healthcare. So I knew I’d need a science background. They kind of played into each other.”
As a preschooler in Los Angeles, Berg remembers being eager to explore the natural world and curious about how things worked. Her parents and teachers encouraged and reinforced that enthusiasm. Later, after moving to Coeur d’Alene, she attended a charter middle school that sharpened her science aptitude and provided the study tools she needed to excel at the next level.
She credits her mom, a nurse, for nurturing her interest in healthcare and her decision to pursue a medicine-related career. “She’s always shared her profession with us,” Berg says. “She’d come home with stories about how much she loves her profession. So I’ve always had an interest in healthcare through her.” That influence rubbed off on Berg’s younger sister too, who, like their mom, plans to pursue a nursing career.
Ensuring that their daughters attended college was a clear priority in the Berg household. Bree laughs while recalling regular family conversations about the topic when she and her sister were kids. “Mom and dad were very, very persistent, very encouraging, telling us we pretty much had to go to college.”
When the time arrived, 3 universities made Berg’s lists of finalists. She says WSU won the competition for 4 reasons: the emphasis on hands-on research opportunities for undergraduates, the Honors College, the scholarships available, and the sense of community she experienced when she visited campus as a high school student.
Expanding on the last point, she shares a story from her initial visit to Pullman. She and her mom were touring campus, walking through one of the residence halls when Berg remembered she wanted to check out Honors Hall, which wasn’t on the official tour. She and her mom found the building and walked inside. Within moments, two honors students invited the visitors to their suites, then led a tour of the entire hall.
“It highlighted the strong sense of community here and how willing students were to genuinely help each other out,” she says, “and that just continued as a theme throughout my WSU experience. There’s always been a sense of Cougs helping out fellow Cougs, and if there’s somebody that needs your help, as a Coug, you’re almost obligated to assist.”
Berg peppers her conversation with references to the importance of giving back. As a high school student, she volunteered often at the Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene, an experience that provided helpful insights into the healthcare system as well as the satisfaction derived from helping others. “The community has always been a strong support system for my success, so I really enjoyed giving back,” she says.
She continued those volunteer efforts at WSU, mentoring classmates studying the sciences through the Multicultural Student Services Team Mentoring program and introducing children from the Palouse area to the delights of chemistry through science demonstrations planned and delivered by the WSU Chemistry Club.
Berg describes the mentoring program as a “hugely enriching process. It’s been a lot more hands-on than most of the volunteer experiences I’ve had. I work one-on-one with students and help develop their interests as they continue through WSU, providing insight and advice to someone who might be struggling, from the perspective of someone who’s had those experiences.”
Her green eyes light up when she describes the Chemistry Club activities involving kids of all ages. “We put on science demonstrations for them that are very visually engaging, with lots of big bangs, lots of pretty colors, to pique the students’ interests at a young age so they are reminded that chemistry can be fun,” she says. “You can get bogged down by all of the mechanistic details and all of the extraneous laws and thermodynamics, and it can get really, really daunting. So you have to get back to the roots of science and back to what makes it interesting.”
“Another important thing that research teaches you is how to accept failure. I don’t think I’ve ever failed so much at something in my life as attempting to do research. You get used to it, you get used to trying things and putting yourself out there and experimenting.”
Berg credits the Honors College as a major contributor to her success at WSU, where she earned outstanding grades while majoring in biochemistry and earning minors in molecular biology and chemistry.
The honors program wasn’t even on her radar when she was considering colleges. But after attending some of the university’s honors seminars and presentations, Berg was hooked.
“Not only does Honors promote a global perspective,” she explains, “but the experience facilitated my research career here.” A three-week trip to Spain, in particular, opened her eyes to a different culture and provided an opportunity to practice her Spanish language skills. Then an Honors College-financed trip allowed her to present her prostate cancer research at a conference in Denver, which expanded her horizons about the possibilities involving research.
Count Berg among the believers in the value of gaining laboratory research experience as an undergraduate. And the benefits go far beyond the immediate research, she emphasizes. “I started learning how to think critically about a project, how to manipulate experiments and variables to yield different results, and that really helped develop a lot of character traits, a lot of independence, a lot of ability to think.”
She singles out the university’s healthcare labs for particular praise, largely because of the opportunities they provide to practice concepts presented during lectures. She describes the thrill of learning in the cadaver lab: “You can see all the muscles and arteries and nerves and everything that makes up a person, which is immeasurably valuable. And it just put a whole new perspective on everything I was learning. It really enhanced that experience.”
The support network provided by WSU faculty was another important aspect of her success, Berg says. She ticks off a partial list of some of the faculty she credits for her success: William Davis in the School of Molecular Biology, Kathy Elstad in the Honors College, chemistry instructor and Chemistry Club advisor Michael Finnegan, and lab supervisor Jonel Saludes, assistant professor in organic and bioorganic chemistry
“All of these people have immeasurably added to my success. They’ve provided valuable insight because of their experience. And my career goals have been driven a lot by the influence of these people. I do not think I’d be as successful without them.”
“I heard about the Bardos through my mentor, Jonel Saludes, who brought it to my attention. I’ve never been the most confident in research. Coming out of high school it never struck me as something like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do that.”
Berg’s focus on prostate cancer research occurred more due to happenstance than grand design. After applying to participate in various campus lab research projects for about a year—and getting rejected each time—she was invited by Saludes, a member of the Department of Chemistry, to join his team. That proved to be the launching pad to the Bardos award.
Saludes, whom Berg considers a mentor, initially suggested that she apply for the award. It wasn’t an idea Berg embraced at the beginning.
“When he presented this to me, it seemed like such an unattainable goal that I could possibly win an award like that,” she says. “But he was very, very determined, he was very supportive. He, like my mother, said, ‘You don’t have a choice, you’re doing this.’ That extra encouragement really got me interested.”
Berg’s research during a three-year period focused on part of a biomarker protein that is typically found in all stages of prostate cancer with greatest expression in late stage and metastatic illness. The research eventually could lead to development of an inhibitory peptide to stop the binding of the proteins that potentially aid the growth and metastasis of prostate cancer cells.
Winning the Bardos provided Berg the opportunity to travel to the AARC’s annual meeting in San Diego in 2014. There she presented her research, which was coauthored by graduate student Brandan Cook in collaboration with WSU professor Cliff Berkman. She repeated that experience in 2015 when she traveled to the AARC meeting in Philadelphia to share the next phase of her efforts, coauthored with undergraduate student Jack Hyder.
Berg says attending the first AARC meeting was life changing.
“You get there and you’re immersed in this environment of pure academics, this amazing, amazing wealth of knowledge. And all of these people are amazingly supportive. I was able to interact on a one-on-one basis and explain my research to a lot of people who are doing work in similar fields. It helps shape your development of the project and it provides a lot of unique insights. You begin to consider perspectives that you might not have considered before.“
Berg’s research focus has special significance. Close family friends have been diagnosed with cancers in recent years.
“It’s created a good atmosphere for getting all the resources you need to make a decision and developing yourself to understand what you want.”
Berg resolved to attend medical school to become a doctor when she was 5. All of her studies and extracurricular activities during the subsequent 15 years were designed to bring that goal to fruition.
Then, toward the end of her junior year at WSU, she began having second thoughts. She realized she wanted a career that provided a healthy balance between her job, family, and social life. After talking to mentors and advisors, she reset her sights to become a physician assistant, a field in which she’ll carry out many of the same responsibilities as a doctor but live a less hectic lifestyle.
”WSU has really helped me determine what’s important as an individual,” she says, pausing. “The university experience has helped me develop on a personal level and learn who I am as a person. And my faculty mentors and advisors have provided a lot of valuable insights that helped me understand the ramifications of the decision I had to make.”
“The university experience has helped me develop on a personal level and learn who I am as a person.”
After finishing her WSU degree requirements and before enrolling in a PA program, Berg plans to return to Coeur d’Alene and certify as an Emergency Medical Technician. The experience will provide the thousands of hours of direct patient care that PA schools require for admission.
But at some point in the near future—and echoing one of her core values again—Berg says she hopes to complete a medical mission trip abroad, perhaps in Nepal or Honduras. “I’ve always wanted to do a medical mission trip to get out and help people. I want to go throughout the world and practice medicine, get a broader view of the field, and gather a more global context.”
Berg also hopes her career track will provide opportunities to pursue research in the future as well. After all, what else would you expect from someone honored for her outstanding potential as an exceptional next-generation scientist?