“Imagine an active volleyball player sitting down and very quietly working with hundreds of tumor microarray samples, each sized at about 1 millimeter in diameter. This is another side of the athletic Irena: calm, patient, and precise,” says Jialing Xiang, professor of biology in the College of Science at Illinois Tech, describing one of her former research students, Irena Grauzinis (BCHM 3rd year). “Last summer she analyzed more than 600 tissue samples and generated very meaningful data for our cancer research project,” Xiang notes.
The 5-foot 8-inch Grauzinis, who served as co-captain and outside hitter for the Scarlet Hawks Women’s Volleyball team during its 2015–16 season, would also add adventurous to her list of personal attributes. Growing up in Elgin, Illinois, she says that besides playing volleyball she also was active in soccer, dance, gymnastics, and figure skating. She even took the plunge and tried a new sport last year as a member of the Scarlet Hawks Women’s Swimming and Diving team.
“I joined just to experience something new; I like challenging myself,” she says of her one season in the water. “It was a lot of fun for me to learn a new skill that I never thought I’d be able to try and to have the resources of a coach.”
After playing her final year of varsity volleyball in 2016–17, Grauzinis hopes to pick up another new skill set as a medical scribe. Scribes help to unburden a physician’s workload and allow doctors to spend more quality time with patients by entering the medical history, examination notes, and other relevant information into a patient’s electronic health record. The role is also a bridge to professional school as it gives pre-med students like Grauzinis a solid opportunity to learn medical jargon and observe life close up in a clinical setting.
Grauzinis has already spent years preparing for her prospective admission into a medical program. Since 2013 she has been assisting patients and the occupational therapy staff as a volunteer at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital & Medical Center. She recently applied for her third medical brigade trip to South America as a participant in the Illinois Tech chapter of MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education, and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere). And she worked in Xiang’s laboratory from 2013 to 2015, ultimately earning a College of Science Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend to further her work analyzing the correlation between the amount of a colon cancer indicator (Bax∆2) and the cancer’s aggressiveness. Her experiences have helped to forge her desire to one day make an impact on the quality of health care in underprivileged and underdeveloped communities around the globe.
“Nothing is more fascinating to me than the human body and learning how it works,” says Grauzinis. “I knew that I wouldn’t always have volleyball in my life, but my coming out of college with a meaningful degree that I worked hard to achieve is what’s most important to me.”