Professor Sara Heggland

Biology professor leads student-faculty research effort 

Biology professor Dr. Sara Heggland can tell you exactly where she was the day one conversation changed her career – and opened new doors for students at The College of Idaho.

The place was McCain Student Center, the year was 2003 and the conversation was with University of Idaho scientist Dr. Mike Laskowski, who asked Heggland if the C of I would be interested in receiving $30,000 to conduct biomedical research as part of a statewide National Institutes of Health initiative.

“I thought, ‘OK, is this a joke? Is this a scam? Am I on Candid Camera? Why does he want to give us $30,000?’ ” Heggland recalls.

Laskowski asked Heggland to write a proposal, and he’d secure the funding. That summer, Heggland hired two C of I students and created a program on cadmium toxicity in bone and its relation to osteoporosis that her team is researching to this day. For a decade, Heggland's lab has been part of the Idaho NIH INBRE (IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence) program, which has brought more than $3 million in biomedical research grants to the College.

“I think about what if we had missed that opportunity, how would the path be different?” Heggland said. “I’m so glad that we saw this was something that we needed to do.”

The program has been transformative for both faculty and students, as Heggland and her fellow professors in the sciences have made it a priority to emphasize student-faculty collaborative research.

“I see my lab as a community of researchers,” she said. “Students are involved in every step of the process of science, from designing and conducting the experiments to the culmination in a poster or conference presentation.”

The cadmium project in particular has been a boon for Heggland and the more than 40 student researchers who have participated. The C of I team — one of the few research teams in the world studying cadmium toxicity and bone health –already has made important discoveries demonstrating that cadmium directly affects osteoblasts, the body’s bone-forming cells, by causing them to intentionally destroy themselves. Heggland’s team also has determined that cadmium gets deposited in the extra-cellular matrix of bone rather than calcium, and the group hopes to find out what replacing calcium does to the overall strength of bone.

Shea Wright, a recent graduate who joined the cadmium research project as an INBRE Fellow, said she enjoyed participating in the ground-breaking research.

“It’s exciting to learn something you wouldn’t be able to learn in a regular classroom,” Wright said. “Being involved in the research process taught me a lot about perseverance and problem-solving.”

Thao Ha, a biology major and INBRE Fellow, said the research experience is benefiting her plans for a medical career.

“Medical students need to be able to work independently and they need to learn how to think critically,” Ha said. “Those are skills I’ve enhanced working on this project.”

Heggland's passion for student-faculty research goes beyond the sciences.  In 2006, she helped plan and organize the first campus-wide Student Research Conference.  On April 26th, 2014 the campus will host the ninth annual SRC, which is a celebration of student research and creative activities from a variety of disciplines ranging from theater and history to biology and anthropology.

In addition to benefiting students, the collaborative research environment at the College has helped Heggland forge lifetime relationships with the students who work and study in her lab. She remains in contact with the two students she hired to get the program off the ground in 2003, as well as many others who have worked alongside her for the past decade.

“For me as a teacher and a scholar here, what I find to be so rewarding is watching students get excited about science in the lab and see them really get involved in a research project,” Heggland said.