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On course for discovery

A discovery by any other name might just be as unpronounceable. Yet for Emilia Czyszczon, a newfound passion for research led to a previously unidentified virus that will forever share her name — Czyszczon1.

Czyszczon, a senior in agricultural and biological engineering, dove into research the summer after her freshman year and enrolled in a class where every student had the chance to discover a virus. Jenna Rickus, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, inspired Czyszczon to think beyond the normal festering grounds for bacteria and viruses.

After some initial investigation, Czyszczon took her search underground — to Bluesprings Caverns in Bedford, Ind. It was there she collected soil samples from an underground river where cave walls contained mud and dirt with remnants from the Ice Age. "I went to a cave that had glacial mud, so my virus had a lot of evolutionary significance," she says.

Her discovery could be medically significant, too, as the bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria, could prove useful in treating diseases like tuberculosis.

All of these possibilities have changed the course of Czyszczon's life. Where she once thought on attending medical school, she now plans to follow a researcher's path in the life sciences. "Most students aren't exposed to research before college," she says. "After gaining more exposure to the process, I realized I wanted to continue research with the goal of helping people in an indirect way."

And she could be well on her way. The National Cave Association has already offered her a fellowship to pay for graduate school. In the best-case scenario, Czyszczon says she would go off to another university for her graduate and PhD work (Purdue typically does not hire their own) and then end up teaching and doing research back at Purdue.

The daughter of Polish immigrants and a Purdue civil engineer (Andrew Czyszczon, CE '69), Czyszczon was signed up to go to the University of Wisconsin when her father suggested that she at least visit his alma mater. "I stepped outside of the car near the Armory and said, ‘This is it. This is where I'm going to school,'" she says. "I just had a feeling that I belonged here."

Now the second-generation Boilermaker who bleeds the same old gold and black as her father will continue on her own journey. "I've always been fascinated by places that most people won't go to, like caves or the deep oceans," she says. And who knows the discoveries that await her?