Talking Real Science with Ellie Siebeneck

This episode of Share Science features Ellie Siebeneck, a junior at Duke University, and one of 10 students who were recently awarded the Stem Research NIL award for promising undergraduate researchers. This award is part of’s commitment to support and mentor students who are at the beginning of their STEM education and careers. In addition to a grant of $5000 each, the 10 award winners are collaborating with as brand ambassadors. empowers and connects scientists worldwide and accelerates scientific discovery with their digital research marketplaces, combining sophisticated AI technology with white glove research concierge support to enable scientists to run more innovative experiments in less time and at a lower cost.

To find out why over 100 biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies as well as the U.S. National Institutes of Health utilize their private enterprise marketplaces click here.

Jumping right into the first question here: where did you grow up? Have you always been interested in the sciences?

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York called Saratoga Springs, just north of Albany. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Saratoga Springs, it’s famous for its natural springs, horse racing and was actually the birthplace of the potato chip. I have a younger sister who’s a senior in high school and a younger brother who’s in sixth grade, and I’ve always been super passionate and interested in science. Both my parents are doctors; my mom is a dermatologist and my dad is a podiatrist. So I was born into a science family and I’ve always found learning about how our body works to be super fascinating.

“The fact that two cells are able to come together to create a fully functioning and complex human being like you or me is absolutely crazy, and all the intricate processes that are happening inside our bodies every millisecond just really blows my mind. I’ve also always been curious about how our species has evolved over time and how we continue to evolve to adapt to our surroundings.”

Throughout high school, I really loved all of my science teachers, and I think they each helped play a role in continuing my love for science. I was fortunate enough to take an intense three-year science research course where I was able to conduct individual research and present my findings at symposiums and competitions. I was actually able to conduct two studies, looking at smartphone usage and its effects on age, gender relationship, status and education level. This class really allowed me to familiarize myself with the scientific community and interact with lots of members of the research community, and I think this really sparked my love for research, which I’ve been fortunate enough to continue to do during my time in college so far.

Well, that’s fantastic. It looks like you’ve already had such an interesting and exciting start to your interest in the sciences. So which university are you currently attending and what are you studying there? I believe you’re also involved in a couple of different avenues of research, could you tell us a little bit about the research you’re currently conducting?

Yeah, of course. So I’m currently a junior at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and I’m double majoring in biology with a concentration in anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics and evolutionary anthropology with a concentration in behavior, ecology, and cognition with a chemistry minor. My first couple of years here I worked with a couple of different research teams before finding my passion this past summer.

As you mentioned, I’m currently involved in two distinctive research avenues here at Duke. First, I’m working at the renowned Duke Lemur Center where we’re recording social observations in the captive lemurs, with the ultimate goal of generating a large database with all of these observations that researchers and people can use and access.

I’m also working with PhD students here in the biomedical engineering department at the Center for Women’s Global Health Technologies where I’m involved in a couple of different projects. The first project we’re analyzing is how triple-negative breast cancer, or TNBC, in mice and swines is affected by ethyl cellulose ethanol ablation; a modified version of ethanol ablation which is a known method of destroying tumors. We’re currently in the process of submitting a study called “Determining the relationship of delivery parameters in ablation distribution for novel gel ethanol percutaneous therapy and XDO spine liver” for publication, which is super exciting.

The other projects that I’ve been working on monitor and compare tumor volumes of untreated and treated triple negative breast cancer mice to determine recurrence, and aid in optical imaging to study vulnerabilities of chemo-resistant tumors. Through both of these projects, I have been able to work in close contact with PhD candidates which has been super awesome, working with them and hearing all they have to say. I’ve also been able to master a wide variety of different skills and certifications including retro orbital injections, IP cavity injections, window surgeries, necropsies, IACUC certification. So I am basically able to handle mice, mark their tails, monitor their tumors, use different types of microscopes, prep and load sets for pathology analysis, prepare drugs using needles and pipettes, and utilize a wide variety of different softwares like matlab, Microsoft Excel, and JMP to do statistical analysis and create graphs.

“Another big thing that I’ve been able to do here is work with younger researchers. This past weekend we were able to work in a lab with some elementary students around the local Durham community and walk them through some scientific experiments, which has also been really rewarding for me.”

So how do you hope that your research will help others or contribute to a better world?

With my research over at the Duke Lemur Center, which is the largest sanctuary for lemurs in the entire world, and actually the largest lemur population outside of Madagascar. For those of you that don’t know, lemurs are the world’s most endangered group of mammals, with species ranging from critically endangered to endangered. For me, one of the main goals of that research is that, by observing their social behaviors and providing these observations to researchers and people around the globe, this will hopefully help us to better understand their behavior and in doing so, improve their chances of survival in the wild.

With the breast cancer research that I’ve been working on, unfortunately, I know many family and friends that have battled breast cancer. Of course, breast cancer is a very prevalent disease. I think for me, having seen so many friends and family battle and even pass from breast cancer, and obviously, so, so many women today are suffering worldwide, my sincere hope is that someday the research that I’m working on will hopefully help to end their suffering or improve treatment methods. All of that, but as I also mentioned, I’ve been fortunate to mentor aspiring researchers. So I hope that by sharing my research with them, I may be able to help encourage them to achieve their dream of one day possibly becoming a researcher.

I think you mentioned a little earlier that you had teachers in the past and mentors that influenced you in your journey so far. So let’s talk a little bit more about that: who was or is the greatest influence on your academic journey thus far? Do you have a mentor that’s played a significant role in your career?

Honestly, there have been so many different people that have contributed to my love for science and my passion for research. But I definitely think that my parents, especially early on, have played a large role in my career. As I mentioned, I kind of grew up in a science- and STEM focused household, and they were always obviously very supportive of my interest in science and my growing passion for research. I think also my teachers and professors that I’ve had so far, both growing up in Saratoga and also during my time so far at Duke, have really encouraged that love and passion for research and for science.

For my current research specifically at the Duke Lemur Center, my evolution anthropology advisor, Dr. Leslie Digby has really played a huge role in sparking my research interest in this area. As I mentioned, I am an evolution anthropology major. I was actually fortunate enough to take a class taught by Dr. Digby at the Lemur Center last semester in the fall where I looked at the function of active juvenile socialization in crowned and red-ruffed lemurs. Honestly, this was one of the coolest courses that I’ve ever taken in my life. I think the Lemur Center is a really unique thing that Duke has to offer that sets it apart from other top institutions around the world. But just seeing how passionate Dr. Digby was about the research she was conducting there and her love for the animals, it really inspired me and sparked my research interest. So to continue working at the center this semester on her research team was super awesome. This whole semester, she’s been super supportive of me, working on my schedule to find times to come in, I could not be happier with how that’s turned out. So, a big thanks to her.

With my breast cancer research, as I mentioned, I’ve been working in close contact with some PhD students in the lab, specifically Erica and Anna. They both helped me and taught me so much both in the lab and out of the lab. Just seeing how passionate they are about what they’re doing, really inspires me to hopefully one day find something career wise that I’m equally just as passionate about.

So, in a previous interview, you said that you’d like to continue your research into the graduate school world and beyond. Can you tell us a little bit more about those post-grad plans and which direction you hope to see your career go in the future?

So my current plan is to attend medical school and hopefully pursue the career of a physician. I am on the pre-med track and doing all those prerequisites and fun stuff. But I’m also hoping to continue my research into medical school and possibly even beyond; so many institutions offer MD PhD programs, which I’m definitely looking into. But as I said, ultimately my goal is to just help people and I’m hopeful that pursuing a career in both medicine and research will allow me to do so.

Do you have any advice for those young students who are just building their interest in research or the sciences in general that might be intimidated or not know where to begin?

Yeah, for sure. I think one of the most important things that I really want to stress is to really take the time to find something you’re passionate about. For me, like I said, in high school, I worked on some more social science research and my first couple of years at Duke, I looked at more marine science and some public policy research. So it took me nearly five years to find the Lemur Center and the Center for Women’s Global Health Technologies; both things that I’m really passionate about doing. But I really think that’s worth it. I’ve had the privilege to talk to multiple different researchers and it’s taken them even longer to find something they’re passionate about doing. I feel like this is super important because once you find what you’re passionate about and what you love doing, it really doesn’t feel like work anymore. At that point, you enjoy going into the lab and doing what you’re doing. You really feel like the research that you’re doing can hopefully ultimately benefit people around the world.

“I know that’s easier said than done, but, definitely try not to get discouraged because I truly believe that once you find something that you’re passionate about studying, it’s really a life changing experience or at least for me it was.”

I also think conducting research has allowed me to develop many skills, such as public speaking, that might be difficult for people, especially when they’re starting out. So I think trying to persevere through that because ultimately, whatever you decide to pursue a career in, research is going to teach you so many valuable life lessons like public speaking and perseverance, as well as trying to figure out how to publish a paper or write something – there’s so many different skills that research can teach you. Even if you don’t decide to ultimately pursue a career in research, just learning many of those skills can really help you in all aspects of your life. As I mentioned multiple times, I love mentoring and working with aspiring researchers. So if anyone who’s watching today has any questions or is struggling with where to begin in their research journey, please feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to help in any way that I can.

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