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Rowan Nelson standing in front of a mural.

Resilient biochemistry and molecular biology graduate forges her own identity

By Grace Peterman

In her free time, Rowan Nelson enjoys hunting for sunstones in southwestern Oregon and creating art inspired by the video game Spore.

Rowan Nelson has come into her own as a researcher during her time in the College of Science. A Biochemistry and Molecular Biology graduate, she has completed minors in Biological Data Science, Computer Science and Asian Languages and Cultures with a focus in Japanese. Through her experience with undergraduate research, she found a path through her diverse interests to the work she wants to continue for the rest of her life.

Nelson grew up in Arizona and Lake Oswego, just south of Portland. She greatly prefers the latter place, especially the beauty of the Pacific Northwest’s lush forests.

Nature was a major inspiration for her initial interest in science. Documentaries and a snorkeling trip to Hawaii initially drew her to marine science. “I thought cuttlefish were the coolest, and I wanted to study them,” she said.

In high school, AP Biology and AP Chemistry further defined her direction. She found immunology fascinating, how our immune cells are separate and distinct but such an integral part of our bodies. “That’s what drew me to biochemistry at Oregon State,” Nelson said. “I wanted to learn about those interactions.”

Honing in on her research interests

Nelson found the interdisciplinary research experience she was looking for through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Science program. SURE Science allows College of Science students of any year to get paid to do 11 weeks of full-time research over the summer with faculty from any college. Nelson’s project for SURE examined the impact of climate change on environmental microbes through the Colwell Lab in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The goal of the project was to identify and characterize methane cycling organisms from the wetlands of the Copper River Delta in Southwestern Alaska. “The area is highly influenced by glacial outwash, which deposits minerals, lower downstream, in a gradient of lakes that all have different amounts of influence from glaciers as they melt,” Nelson said.

Nelson’s research analyzed genetic sequences of microbes from the pond closest to the glacial influence source. The area has unusually high amounts of iron, which could be interacting with the microbes’ ability to process methane. “Wetlands are the number one natural producer of greenhouse gases worldwide, due to the breakdown of organic material,” she said, “so it’s important to know if elevated mineral levels are interfering with methanogenesis or methanotrophy.”

To analyze the microbes’ genetic codes, Nelson used powerful data processing tools drawn from her coursework in biological data science and computer science. “All sorts of programs designed by other researchers can elucidate these genetic relationships and determine what microbe is what,” she said. “Bioinformatics uses computer science as an application for biological systems, while computational biology actually develops those applications, which is what I want to do in the future.”

Rowan Nelson standing in front of a poster with her research.

Rowan Nelson presented her research with SURE Science on the community composition of methane-cycling microbes in the wetlands of the Copper River Delta.

Since SURE, Nelson has continued working in the Colwell Lab as an undergraduate research assistant. The experience has helped her grow both professionally and personally, discovering what kind of work motivates her and finding mentors along the way.

As someone who struggles with anxiety, Nelson said that finding a lab environment that fits can be a challenge. This anxiety contributes to imposter syndrome, a feeling of self-doubt about whether one belongs in a given space.

“I have a tendency to downplay my accomplishments,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like there are so many people out there accomplishing much bigger things. But I have to take care of myself. And if I have to take more breaks than other people, that’s ok.”

In processing her anxiety, Nelson said the microbiology graduate students in the lab have been a huge help. “I’ve been able to talk to them about the issues I’ve faced, and kind of learn that it’s ok, because I’m going through this process and I’m learning.”

Overall, thanks to her research trajectory that started with SURE, “I’m in a much better place than I was,” she said. “And I’m feeling much better about taking the next step.”

Nelson’s next step is a one-year research program at the University of Washington, the NIH-funded PREP program. In the lab of computational geneticist William Noble, Nelson will delve deeper into computational biology while shifting research directions. “A lot of the things I’m doing now are environmental sequencing,” she said, “but I can translate those skills into a human environment.”

At UW, she will work with protein datasets which can be applied to microbiome research, which is her ultimate career goal. Computer science tools can be used to analyze the trillions of organisms that make up the human gut microbiome, and research on the gut-brain axis points to connections between anxiety and microbial taxa.

Examining mental health determinants

Thinking about anxiety and the gut-brain connection, Nelson got to wondering how mental health medications interact with gut health. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are used to treat depression, and 95% of serotonin is located in the gut. Researching the interactions between anti-depressants, serotonin and gut microbiota could uncover new ways to treat mental illness with fewer side effects. “I hope to one day make an impact with something I research and develop and be able to contribute to accessible ways to help people with chronic mental health issues,” said Nelson.

Nelson’s decision to focus on the gut-brain axis was solidified by her experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unprecedented upheaval and isolation increased widespread demand for mental health services and made finding accessible, affordable therapy extra-challenging.

“Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) helped, but there are limitations,” Nelson said. “You’re assigned to meet one-on-one with a counselor for ten weeks, which may not be enough time to develop mental health strategies for students who are dealing with chronic conditions.”

After one term with a counselor, students can continue into a CAPS therapy group and/or be referred to an outside therapist. Finding an in-network therapist that you connect with can be a trying process, on top of mental health issues. “Looking for a therapist can feel like you’re going out on this limb and constantly reaching dead ends,” said Nelson.

To get through the pandemic, Nelson relied on her lab mates and the friends she’s made as an officer of the Biochemistry Club, whose logo she designed. “It can be hard to reach out to people, but I’ve consistently found that when I do, they’re so kind and open and very willing to make new friends,” she said.

Navigating complex identities

As Nelson’s research interests have evolved, she’s also come into a deeper understanding of her multicultural heritage. Nelson is part of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, a coastal tribe in northern California. Growing up, Nelson’s paternal grandmother taught her and her sister about their heritage as part of a small tribe. “Only as I got older did I realize why there are so few tribal members,” Nelson said.

Once numbering 10,000, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation has fewer than 2,000 members today due to historic genocide sanctioned by the government of California. For Nelson, researching her tribe’s history meant confronting events like the brutal Yontocket massacre of 1853. When white pioneer militia suspected a Tolowa Dee-ni’ man of killing a white prospector, they interrupted the tribe’s sacred Nee-dash spiritual celebration, torching the village and murdering 500 Indigenous people.

Although these events are in the past, the effects are still felt today. “My grandma moved away from the reservation as soon as she could due to discrimination from the surrounding communities and lack of opportunity,” Nelson said.

Nelson is in the process of grieving the injustice, reclaiming her heritage and deciding what Indigenous identity means to her. She’s begun studying her tribe’s language and hopes to one day make a positive social impact alongside her career in research.

“I want to use my future time and resources to help out my and other tribal communities and contribute to raising an excitement for science in those communities,” she said.