Allie Welter, a 2018 UW-Eau Claire graduate, spent five months researching at Mayo Clinic as part of a team that seeks treatment and understanding of a rare genetic heart defect.

Allie Welter, a 2018 UW-Eau Claire graduate, has had a solid idea of what she wants to do with her life since she was 12 years old, and she hasn’t strayed from it.

But not many people have had the lifetime of inspiration growing up alongside them that Welter has had — her younger brother, Andy. Andy Welter, a high school senior in Farmington, Minn., has a rare genetic disorder called myotubular myopathy, which impacts muscle development and leaves him dependent upon a wheelchair and ventilator. Since her preteen years, Allie has known that she wants to find more than just ways to help her brother live his best life. She wants to discover drugs and therapies to treat or cure diseases like her brother’s.

“When I was around 12, I went to my first MTM family conference where families dealing with MTM come together to learn from each other and find support,” said the UW-Eau Claire biochemistry/molecular biology graduate. “Researchers attend every year and update families about the newest studies into developing a cure. That was my first introduction to the possibility of medical research as a career. I found these people very inspiring, and learning about their work played a huge role in my decision to pursue a Ph.D.”

Welter began her graduate studies in July at the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. The program is new for Welter, but not the place. She worked at Mayo as a biomedical researcher for five months after completing her UW-Eau Claire degree last December.

“I kind of had a ‘gap semester’ between graduating and starting a Ph.D. program, so I came to Mayo Clinic to find out if there was a lab where I could work on the types of genetics projects that interest me, those connected to genetic disease and finding therapies for them,” Welter said. “I met Dr. Tim Olson who had a position for a grad student in this lab, and he hired me as part of the Mayo Clinic Graduate Research Employment Program. His lab is studying the genetics of hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a severe congenital heart defect in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. The lab is seeking genetic clues into this very complicated disease, and potential treatments.”

Olson saw on Welter’s resume that she graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a wide array of research experiences under her belt, all of which had helped her decision to pursue a Ph.D. Those experiences enabled her to hone her lab and analytical skills and build a network of contacts in the field of biomedical research.

“Doing undergraduate research at UW-Eau Claire helped prepare me to be more independent working here at Mayo Clinic,” she said. “I felt more comfortable being an independent scientist after doing research for so long, and the time in Boston allowed me to network with the amazing Harvard faculty. It was a really great experience.”

Becoming more adept and independent as a laboratory researcher is something that benefits not only the research students, but Mayo Clinic as well, according to Dr. Jeanne Theis, Mayo Clinic research scientist and participating supervisor in the GREP program.

“Allie brought with her some tools that we weren’t familiar with, programming she had learned in one of her courses,” Theis explained. “These students are very bright, they’re very motivated, and they bring a lot to the table. The other thing they offer is that they force us to think outside the box a little more, asking things like ‘Why aren’t you doing it this way?’ or saying ‘Maybe we should try this.’ Ultimately, they’re not afraid to ask those questions and to challenge us in the labs, which is great.”