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Silver Linings from a Pandemic Graduation

Bioscientist Olivia Pura finds time to pursue her passions for podcasting and pageantry.

mnd olivia pura

By Olivia Pura
Winter 2021
My Northwestern Direction

No lecture, seminar or Norris Mini Course could have prepared me for the upheaval of graduating in the Class of 2020. In a matter of weeks, my future — a meticulously and beautifully arranged house of cards — was blown apart. I’m a planner who loves organization and consistency, so this change was incredibly disheartening at first. Over time, however, I’ve begun to appreciate the chaos as I learn to play the new hand I’ve been dealt.

One silver lining: I’ve found space for creativity. After months of brainstorming, trading emails and watching YouTube tutorials, my classmate Drew Zbihley ’20 and I launched our podcast, Science in Society, in August. It features interviews with experts who break down the science in everyday life — from the effects of caffeine on the body to the relationship between sleep and chronic disease — in a way that’s understandable, practical and fun. I’m never at a loss for words. And now to have a purpose for those words — and have fun while I’m at it — is so rewarding.

I’ve also found time for reflection. I’m focusing on the present and looking forward to the future. This fall, I began a biochemistry and molecular biophysics doctoral program at the University of Chicago, and my ultimate goal is to become a professor. As a first-generation Polish American and first-generation college student, I have immense gratitude for receiving an education that may one day allow me to provide education for others.

My love for research has its roots at Northwestern. The NU Bioscientist Program provided a perfect outlet for my curiosity. The program prepares a select group of first-year undergraduates — primarily first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students — for research and grant writing through mentor-mentee matching and seminar courses.

My first research project entailed swabbing sinks and toilets in hospitals and analyzing any Pseudomonas aeruginosa that were present. These are the bacteria responsible for many hospital-borne infections. Believe it or not, I fell in love — with the research process! The swabbing part? Not so much.

“I credit Professor Meade with shaping much of my academic journey; his enthusiasm for his work and dedication to his students inspired me to pursue a career in academia.”

Junior year I began more advanced research with Professor Tom Meade. My project investigated cobalt complexes as inhibitors of cellular pathways. In particular, I looked at pathways that cause basal cell carcinoma (skin cancer) and medulloblastoma (brain cancer).

I credit Professor Meade with shaping much of my academic journey; his enthusiasm for his work and dedication to his students inspired me to pursue a career in academia. Earning my PhD will be one more milestone on my journey. 

I reached another type of milestone on Nov. 9, when I placed in the top 10 at Miss USA. I’ve dreamed of competing in the pageant since I was a young girl.

I’m often asked how anyone can balance the vastly different spheres of pageantry and academics. Rather than try to balance them, I find the overlap between them. Pageantry gives women an incredible platform to advocate for causes. Mine is gender equality in STEM fields. As Miss Illinois USA, I’ve worked with the Illinois House of Representatives, Girl Scouts and other organizations to make “my” mission “ours.”

So, while my house of cards may have been left a mess, the pandemic afforded me much-needed time to re-evaluate the deck. Now I’m ready to rebuild the house even stronger — with microphone, lab coat and pageant sash in hand.

Olivia Pura ’20 is Miss Illinois USA 2020 and a first-year doctoral student at the University of Chicago.

Behind the Illustration

Portraits are a vital part of each My Northwestern Direction. Each columnist tells their story in their own words, but we also work with award-winning illustrator Bruce Morser to capture them visually. We thought we would provide a peek behind the scenes of that process, to show how we bring each storyteller to life.

Olivia Pura Timelapse Illustration

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