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ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Olivia Sniezek-Carney '18

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Posted on Wednesday, June 5, 2024

As an undergraduate Molecular Biology student, Olivia Sniezek-Carney ’18 spent a lot of time in WC’s Hoyt Science Center. The access to research resources, gifted faculty, and lab experiences in Hoyt helped reveal her true calling – as her family jokes – as a lifelong student. 

Tell us about your journey since graduating from Westminster.

The summer after graduating from Westminster, I started a Ph.D. program in Human Genetics and Genomics at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. While at Westminster, I majored in Molecular Biology and took many of the phenomenal courses offered by the biology faculty. I was also incredibly fortunate to be able to do a summer internship at The Magee Women’s Research Institute at UPMC in Pittsburgh, a partnership which I hear is still ongoing. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of the Biology Department at Westminster and the extraordinary faculty who devote their time and energy to graduating fantastic young scientists.

While at Hopkins, I have been focused on understanding the mechanisms underlying rare human genetic diseases, including mitochondrial disorders and inborn errors of metabolism. Patients with rare or undiagnosed diseases are an often-overlooked group, and our work focuses on finding the biological or mechanistic basis for these diseases to aid in the development of therapeutics for patients. I recently held my Ph.D. thesis defense in April and am preparing my final written dissertation. This summer I plan on starting a postdoctoral research fellowship to continue working on therapeutic discovery for other rare diseases. I am so lucky to work at a place where I can combine my love of research with clinical care, and we can really see how our research impacts patients’ lives. I was even able to do some of the research on therapies used in my mentor’s clinical trials, some of which are currently being evaluated at the FDA.

What is next for you in your career/academia path?

I decided to continue on a more traditional “academic path” post-PhD, which involves additional research years. My entire family jokes that I will be a lifelong student, and they aren’t wrong, I have always loved to learn!

Since I am finishing my Ph.D. degree this spring/summer (yay!), I am beginning a postdoctoral research fellowship, and will be staying at Hopkins in the Human Genetics department with my current research group. I have been fortunate to have an incredible mentor here at Hopkins and I am excited to continue to work with and learn from her. As a postdoc-fellow, I will be expanding our research to involve investigating a few additional rare diseases, some of which haven’t previously been studied much. We hope that by using these models, we can better understand patients’ diseases and can begin to develop some potential therapies.

I am also interested in clinical diagnostics and laboratory genetic testing, so I am currently applying for a laboratory genetics and genomics fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would allow me to still do my research at Hopkins and get additional training and certification. So, after this additional research and fellowship training period, I would be able to get the credentials to run a clinical/diagnostic genetic lab in a hospital system and be a research scientist. I think the possibilities after a Ph.D. are endless, and it’s a great opportunity to be able to “build your own adventure.”

How did your education at Westminster prepare you for your graduate studies?

I can’t say enough good things about my time at Westminster. There are a few highlights, for me, that exemplify the positive qualities of Westminster and why the education here made for such a successful transition into graduate studies--namely the faculty, class sizes, unique research and lab experiences, and URAC.

Westminster’s faculty are incredible. The biology department was absolutely instrumental in my success post-graduation. The faculty truly dedicate their time, effort, and expertise to ensure that students graduate with a well-rounded education and with the background they need to succeed. Not only that, but the personal connections made with faculty really make students feel seen, supported, and valued. I have heard of so many Westminster success stories including others from my class who went on to graduate school, medical school, industry, etc.

The science classes at Westminster are top notch. I know, from personal experience, that many of the classes taught in Hoyt Science Center go above and beyond the typical college curriculum and give students additional skill sets that many other institutions don’t have. The genetics classes, cancer biology, cell biology, and nuclear classes taught by Dr. Corrette-Bennett and Dr. Resendes are really an incredible and unique asset to the curriculum. In addition, the hands-on research from lab classes and capstone gives students such an exceptional technical skill set that many larger schools with bigger class sizes can’t provide.

I also wanted to put in a quick plug for the URAC research day at WC. Having the chance to present posters and talks is an amazing opportunity for students and helps to build research and presentation skill sets. I think it is also a great opportunity to foster relationships between faculty and students. For me, I consider the skills I gained through opportunities like URAC to have been instrumental in preparing me for grad school. All this to say, I am incredibly grateful to the Westminster professors and biology department for all their hard work and dedication to ensuring student success, and for helping pave the way for post-graduate success for myself and many other grateful WC alumni.

Name a professor who made a big impact on your life?

It is impossible to choose just one faculty member who had a big impact on my life. I couldn’t speak about my time at WC without mentioning Dr. Corrette-Bennett. He was my academic advisor, capstone-advisor, and I am thankful to still consider him a mentor and a friend. In college, and still to this day, I am thankful for his guidance and mentorship, he really helped me grow as a scientist and taught me invaluable research and life skills. I think Dr. C-B is an excellent professor and scientist, but, most importantly, an incredible person. He dedicates so much of his personal time to ensuring that students succeed, and, through the ups and downs of college, he was always there providing a listening ear and insightful advice. He is so caring and compassionate and always made us feel valued and supported. I also have to mention Dr. Resendes, without whom I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. She is an amazing scientist, mentor, and role model. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to learn from her. I think having so many positive scientific role models from my time at Westminster is just one of the things I will be forever thankful for.

I also wanted to, briefly, mention Jim Anthony, a professor in the mathematics department while I was a student. He was an incredible mentor and helped me develop amazing mathematics research projects that were instrumental in preparing me for a research career after college. He really allowed me to get a head start in research by helping me with a first-year URAC project, and after that we did a URAC research project together every year. I think he was really the first professor who believed in me and gave me the confidence to pursue my own projects and succeed. He is a fantastic person, and truly invested his time and effort in helping me succeed.

What is a fun fact about yourself?

I have had graduate school class lectures from two Nobel laureates, Dr. Gregg Semenza and Dr. Carol Greider. Dr. Semenza was awarded his Nobel while I was at Hopkins, so I was able to attend the university celebration!

Follow Sniezek-Carney’s journey by connecting with her on Linkedin here.