Curiosity drives DMU’s first Ph.D. student

Elizabeth McConnaha, M.S.

Elizabeth McConnaha, M.S., is a scientific Sherlock Holmes of sorts, a former wannabe-veterinarian who learned, thanks to her research on equine cancer during her senior year at Iowa State University, that her love of science did not extend to animal care. Instead, she earned her master’s degree in biomedical sciences at Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine and began teaching human anatomy and physiology at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), mostly to nursing students. She also worked as an autopsy technician at the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner as well as at the Iowa Donor Network in tissue recovery. 

“That job and DMACC changed my outlook on what I want to do,” she says. “I’m passionate about pathology and its investigative side. I’m a curiosity-driven person.” 

That drove her to become the very first student in DMU’s new Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences. It was created to train future biomedical scientists and physician/ scientists and “propel the mission of the University forward,” says Kim Tran, M.D., Ph.D., director of the program and professor of physiology and pharmacology. 

“We have faculty who are producing high-quality, original research suitable for a Ph.D.-level program, as well as students who are interested in it,” he says. “During the planning process, the program received a lot of buy-in from the faculty, student affairs and University leadership, and the Higher Learning Commission approved it on the spot.” 

Back in 2020, McConnaha found herself at a professional fork in the road, between teaching and pathology, so she turned to her mentors, the doctors at the state medical examiner’s office. She considered Ph.D. programs at Iowa State, the University of Iowa and DMU, unaware its program was brand new. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, she contacted the University’s admission office and learned the Ph.D. program’s application window for 2021 was closing in a week. 

“It’s so new and so fresh. Instead of fitting into a box, I felt that I could help build the box.”

“It was a whirlwind. I had to ask people to write letters of recommendation quickly for my application,” she says. “I had just gotten off work at the state medical examiner’s office and told my husband, ‘I think I’m going to apply at DMU.’ I felt a real calmness. We already lived in Des Moines, and the program was at an established institution.” 

DMU’s four-year Ph.D. program encompasses 86 credit hours, with 40 credit hours of research and 46 credit hours of course work, including discipline-specific content, dissertation proposal preparation and presentation, and dissertation writing and defense. Students apply for a specific research lab and project when they apply to the program. McConnaha chose to work with Tran and Eric Wauson, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology, because of their investigations in cardiovascular pathobiology and therapeutics. 

“I’ve seen a lot of autopsies, and the vast majority had something to do with the cardiovascular system. Cardiovascular disease is an epidemic,” she says. 

Tran says a “major plus” McConnaha brought to DMU is her desire to pursue a career in academia. “We were really excited she had teaching experience in some disciplines our program will be preparing students for, which would make it easy for her going through similar courses here,” he says. 

For McConnaha, that DMU’s program was so new wasn’t a concern. 

“It’s so new and so fresh. Instead of fitting into a box, I felt that I could help build the box,” she says. “DMU has such an uplifting environment, and I value the relationships I’ve been able to build with all the professors. I know I can go into any faculty office in Ryan Hall and have a conversation about science, academic life, research or just life.”

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