May 3, 2016
By Gretchen Brown '16 for the CSB/SJU Magazine
It's no secret that science can change lives.
But Emma Bonglack's research has personal ties.
The College of Saint Benedict junior biochemistry major was born in Cameroon, a country in central Africa. She moved to Minnesota at age 12, but has always felt a connection to the place where she was born.
So when Bonglack was considering options for summer research, she chose a subject with a pressing need in Cameroon — tropical disease.
"In the rainy season, if people don't have mosquito nets, they're very susceptible to disease," says Bonglack. Tropical disease is widespread - 21.4 million people in Cameroon are at risk for one or more tropical diseases.
Bonglack was accepted to a competitive summer research program at Yale University in 2015, where she studied the sleeping sickness parasite (trypanosoma brucei) and its progression to infectivity.
"My lab actually extracted tissue from tse tse flies - they transmit the disease by biting humans and injecting the parasite into our blood," explains Bonglack. "We mimicked the environment of the fly's body, and studied how its progression to infectivity changed when we amplified a certain target gene."
Another part of her research was early-stage work in coming up with treatments that are less toxic and more accessible to the patients. Creating a vaccine that can attack the parasite upon infection is important, as the immune system has a hard time fighting it off naturally.
"Once we know how the parasites work, we can work around those mechanisms to develop better treatments," says Bonglack. "It's still a study in progress, but as it is with almost all scientific discoveries, you have to start somewhere, and work your way further as you discover more information."
As impactful as the summer was, it wasn't Bonglack's first time studying something with which she was personally connected.
During her sophomore year of college in 2014, Bonglack conducted a completely different kind of research - studying pancreatic cancer at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill.
"I specifically wanted to do cancer research," says Bonglack. "Four years ago, I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer. So when I was looking at all the topics that they had, that caught my interest."
At UNC, Bonglack was able to assist with research that the university has been working on for more than a decade. She looked into what leads to the division of pancreatic cancer cells. Bonglack's summer research gained national recognition in November 2014. She was one of 20 people to win an award for cancer research presented at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in San Antonio, Texas.
While her two summers in the lab have been impactful, Bonglack aspires to apply her skills to a different kind of experience this summer.
"I'm looking into more personal experiences," says Bonglack. "Not just in the lab, but more with patients. I've also considered going to an underdeveloped country and doing some work there."
Bonglack's goal is to someday return to Cameroon. Part of reaching that goal has been sharpening her French language skills. French is one of the official languages in Cameroon, and a necessity to communicate with healthcare professionals.
Bonglack studied abroad in France during the fall semester of 2015 to help with her grasp of the language.
Studying abroad as a biochemistry major may not have been possible at a different university. But one of the things that drew Bonglack to Saint Ben's was the ability to be involved beyond her major.
"It's truly refreshing to know that I have such a strong support system here," Bonglack says. "There's nothing more invaluable than people who, for whatever reason, see potential in you while consistently pushing and encouraging you to pursue your goals and dreams."
On campus, Bonglack is a member of the dance crew Element, an aerobics instructor and is active in the Black Student Association.
"I generally do culturally related events on campus," says Bonglack. "I love sharing my African culture."