Exploring Life and Science: Student profile, Carrie Davis-Hansson
May 9, 2018
Carrie Davis-Hansson has always been sure of one thing: she loves to travel. So, when the chance came to cross the Atlantic, the Poplar Bluff native didn’t hesitate.
“After high school, I had the opportunity to move to Sweden,” she says. “I followed a guy there, who is now my husband. I was there long enough to get my citizenship and also to know I loved everything about it.”
During those years, Davis-Hansson’s adventurous spirit took her even farther afield. Among other trips, she rode a motorcycle along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, climbed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, and hiked the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Her favorite adventure?
“I really loved Vietnam. It’s a beautiful nation, and the food is amazing,” she says.
These travels plus living abroad did more than expose her to delicious foods and gorgeous landscapes. It was also educational.
“I learned to speak Swedish and had the opportunity to meet a lot of incredible people from vastly different backgrounds. Seeing how other people live was a great experience and incredibly valuable to me,” she says.
In between journeys, Davis-Hansson worked a variety of service jobs, mostly in restaurants. Soon, she found herself on an internal journey of sorts, one that eventually would lead her back home and to Mizzou.
“I reached a point where I realized that the restaurant world was not for me. I decided I should go to university and try to figure out what I want to do with my life,” she recalls.
Why Mizzou? Pretty simple, says Davis-Hansson. “It was close to home.” After five and half years abroad, she says she began to miss her American family and friends.
When she started Mizzou in 2014, she approached college with the same receptiveness that guided her world travels. While she initially chose to major in psychology thinking she might pursue a career in clinical psychology, she purposely kept her options (and her mind) open to other possibilities. Practically speaking, she says, that involved choosing some classes that just sounded interesting to her, which is how she ended up in an introductory to biology course taught by Dr. David Schulz. It was in this class that she found her other passion.
“In Dr. Schulz’s biology course, I discovered that I really loved the life sciences, and I really loved learning about how life works,” she recalls.
Exploring the Nervous System
When Schulz subsequently invited students to apply to do research in his lab, Davis-Hansson jumped at the opportunity. She thought it would be a great opportunity to further explore her interest in the life sciences as well as beef up her research skills.
“I had limited experience with science. I didn’t really know how people did research,” she says. “I felt that this would be a great opportunity to learn the scientific method and apply the principles I had learned in class to real life.”
Davis-Hansson’s interest in both the fundamental research as well as the biomedical impacts impressed Schulz. “As we started talking, I realized she’d be a perfect fit for some of the work we do on spinal cord injury,” he says.
The Schulz lab studies neural plasticity, or how the nervous system changes as the result of some experience or injury or disease. Their specific take on neural plasticity is to look at unexpected and indirect impacts on parts of the nervous system following an injury. One of their model systems is spinal cord injuries.
“While many labs are focused on the injury site itself, because that injury disrupts communication throughout the nervous system, we actually think some of the less understood impacts will be on other parts of the nervous system that lost their normal communication,” explains Schulz.
One of those indirect impacts can be involuntary muscle movements, or spasticity. Davis-Hansson investigates the molecular and cellular changes that occur in neurons following an injury that may cause this often painful, debilitating condition. She works on mice whose spinal nerve fibers have been cut.
“I collect the spinal cord tissue above and below the lesion at 3 and 28 days post-injury. I then take that tissue and quantify the receptor mRNA levels using qRT-PCR,” she explains. “By analyzing the expression levels, we can observe which genes are up- or down-regulated and how those changes affect the activity of the motor neurons.”
Davis-Hansson and Schulz say the research will shed light on how the nervous system, as a whole, responds to an injury. Ultimately, they hope what they learn will someday help people recovering from spinal cord injuries.
“Our long-term goal is to understand how these indirect impacts will have to be woven into therapeutic approaches so that we can have overall recovery, as opposed to just focusing on the particular injury site,” Schulz says.
You can hear more about the work in the Schulz lab and Davis-Hansson’s project in the above video.
Due in part to her research excellence as well as a strong academic record, Davis-Hansson was selected for the Laura Nahm Outstanding Senior in Biological Sciences Award. Her achievements were recognized at the Division’s spring awards banquet in April.
The Next Journey
As for Davis-Hansson, her passion for exploring the unknown world of the molecular has come to rival, to some extent, her love of traveling.
“After being here and being a part of the process, I realized that I loved it, and I want to keep doing it,” she says. “It makes me sad to think about graduating and no longer being here.”
Ultimately, she says she intends to combine her two passions. After graduating in August with her bachelor’s of science degree in biological sciences, Davis-Hansson intends to apply to a master’s program here in the States and then pursue her Ph.D. in Sweden. Ultimately, she sees herself doing research in academia or at a company where she can lead a team.
Looking back on her college years, Davis-Hansson would be the first to admit her trajectory was not the most straightforward. There were some stumbling blocks as well as some twists and turns, she says. Still, she asserts, it was the right path for her.
“There are some students who come to college who are 100 percent driven to be a doctor or a nurse or a lawyer or whatever. I think that’s amazing, and there were times when I wished that was me. But there are plenty of us who don’t know exactly what we want to do,” she says. “I came to university with the goal of figuring out what I want to do. And I did.”
As she heads out on her next adventure, Davis-Hansson offers some tips for students just beginning their own journey.
“Don’t get discouraged,” she says. “Learning is a skill, and studying is a skill. They are things you can get better at, but you have to work at them. Also, take advantage of all the resources available to you.”
Written by: Melody Kroll
Photos courtesy: Carrie Davis-Hansson and the Division of Biological Sciences.
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