Being a highly involved and motivated high school student has allowed Olivia Norbut, class of 2024, to achieve even greater success during her time at Wittenberg.
Norbut is the recipient of both the Special Interest Award scholarship granted by the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement and a First Year Research Award (FYRA) in biology.
“I knew I wanted to go to Wittenberg, not just because it was my parents’ alma mater (Mark and Kim Norbut, both class of 1989), but also because of the many opportunities to become involved while receiving a hands-on, prestigious education,” Norbut said.
Hailing from Grove City, Ohio, Norbut, who is a biochemistry/molecular biology major pursuing minors in neuroscience and psychology, also earned a First-Year Research Award (FYRA) after being accepted to Wittenberg.
“I remember looking at the different scholarship awards available from Wittenberg for first-year college students and came across the FYRA in addition to the Special Interest Scholarship, and I realized that the two could be combined,” she said. “It was unlike any opportunity that other universities had to offer. I decided to apply for the FYRA in biology because I knew it would be a very valuable program as it would allow me to gain research experience in my first year of college. At most larger public institutions, it is unlikely that first-year students have the chance to work alongside a faculty member and engage in research, so the FYRA set Wittenberg apart from other schools.”
Norbut recognized the impact FYRA would have on any future career goals, as will the experience she has gained thus far into her junior year. To date, she has already presented research at two different conferences – a virtual one for the Midbrains-mGluRs Joint Neuroscience on Oct. 23, 2021, and the second, more recent one, at an in-person conference called the Midwest & Great Lakes Undergraduate Research Symposium in Neuroscience (mGluRs) hosted by Baldwin Wallace University. The work she began with FYRA her freshman year has since turned into an ongoing project Norbut continues to research and will ultimately contribute to her departmental honors thesis focused on neuroscience.
“Without FYRA, I would not have had the opportunity to develop autonomy in the lab and ultimately have the confidence and motivation to apply for a summer research project following my first year (2021),” she said. “I knew the FYRA would end after my first year, and I did not want that to mark the end of my time doing research in the lab because I enjoyed it so much. So, in Spring 2021, I applied for a summer research grant so I could work on campus over the summer and continue to study.”
Norbut is highly involved on campus, dedicating 20 hours of community service in Springfield each semester, as well as attending enrichment events for her Special Interest Award and volunteering in the Emergency Department at Kettering Health Springfield. She is also a member of Gamma Phi Beta sorority, Club Volleyball, Tiger Team, Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society (ALD), Omicron Delta Kappa National Honor Society (ODK), president of the Pre-Health Professionals Club, and is a First Year Seminar peer mentor. Other activities and campus jobs include being a teaching assistant in Biology 170/180 Lab, an academic services tutor in biology, and a biology faculty aide for Michelle McWhorter, associate professor of biology. She recently took time of out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about the project and her experiences at Wittenberg.
Wittenberg: Tell me about the project you are working on and how it came about.
Norbut: Over the past two years, I have been working alongside my academic advisor, Dr. McWhorter, on my independent project titled “Variability of target gene expression in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) mice supplemented with N-acetylcysteine (NAC).” To explain this a little further, this project first came about the year before my first year at Wittenberg (2019) after a previous academic journal had concluded that OCD-like behaviors in mice were more effectively reduced when they were given N-acetylcysteine (NAC) for three weeks as opposed to a one-week treatment. As a result, this study suggested that chronic supplementation of the NAC, which is an over-the-counter supplement, relatively accessible, and does not require a prescription, may have the potential to diminish symptoms of OCD in patients.
OCD is a debilitating psychological illness that affects approximately two percent of the general population, including children, adolescents, and adults, and can severely impact a person’s ability to perform daily tasks. The results of this study were important since most of the current OCD treatments available have low efficacy. Simply put, the project I am working on currently focuses on studying whether there are differences in the amount of expression of certain genes in the brains of mice that exhibited obsessive-compulsive behaviors and were supplemented with NAC for either one or three weeks, compared to the amount of expression in those same genes but in OCD mice that were not supplemented with NAC. Animal models can be used in research so that the data can be extrapolated to improve quality of life in humans.
Wittenberg: Tell me about how the project has developed throughout your time at Wittenberg and how important this work is to you.
Norbut: When I first started working in Dr. McWhorter’s lab during my first year of college, I was guided by another student who was a senior at the time, Emma Amurgis ‘21. She was a mentor to me and taught me how to carry out an experiment on my own and ultimately conduct my own research independently. This was a valuable experience because it provided me with a space to learn in a low-pressure setting where I was free to make mistakes and ask questions. Now that I am an upperclassman in my third year at Wittenberg, I have had the privilege to meet other FYRA students and guide them in their attainment of proper lab technique/skills necessary to be successful in their own endeavors. This has been a rewarding experience for me since the motto at Wittenberg is ‘Having Light We Pass It On To Others.’ I cannot think of a more fitting demonstration of this mantra than having learned from a more experienced student at the time when I began doing research, to then have mastered my own skills, and then go on to teach other students who will continue the research once I graduate.
Further, I have enjoyed being a part of this project because of its fluidity – the project develops more with each student who participates in the research because they are focusing on their own carefully selected, unique ‘genes of interest.’ Overall, the work is important to me because it has been such a substantial part of my college education. I can attribute the passion I have for my studies (biochemistry, neuroscience) to the research I do because it has given me a tangible experience to apply what I learn in the classroom to the lab. Finally, the work I am doing is important to me because of its novelty and relationship to improving the quality of health care for patients.
Wittenberg: How will this experience shape your future and future career path?
Norbut: Overall, this experience will contribute to my future career path because of its link to health care. After my undergraduate career at Wittenberg, I aspire to become a physician associate with a specialty in neurosurgery. I am hoping to gain admission into a PA graduate program in Ohio. This research experience has been very valuable to me because it has given me a small glimpse of the hard work and time commitment that goes into discovering more effective treatment options for patients with a debilitating illness or disease.
I believe the high-quality, outstanding education I will have received at Wittenberg will help me tremendously in the future because I am confident that my deep understanding and knowledge of concepts of biochemistry and neuroscience will set me apart from other students.
This experience has helped me to strengthen skills such as presentation and communication skills, as well as working as part of a team. These are skills that I will be constantly exercising in my career to help me work effectively in a hospital setting. As a physician associate, I will be interacting with patients on a personal level and must relay complicated information to them in an easy-to-digest manner.
Wittenberg: Tell me a little about what your experience has been like so far at Wittenberg.
Norbut: Wittenberg has always felt like home to me, even before I became a student. Both of my parents are Wittenberg alumni, so I grew up visiting the campus frequently. Other than the fact that the campus was stunning, one of the main reasons I had decided to come to Wittenberg was because I was impressed by the program that was available to students interested in pursuing a career in occupational therapy. At the time, I wanted to become an OT; however, after my first semester at Wittenberg, I realized how much I enjoyed my biology and chemistry courses. On top of that, I had become immersed in the research I was doing as part of my FYRA.
By the end of my freshman year, I had maintained a 4.0 GPA, and I knew Wittenberg was the right place for me to flourish as a student. Overall, I have had a top-notch academic experience at Wittenberg because of my professors. They have prepared me to be successful not only in all my classes, but also for my future career because of the level of care they provide to their students. I knew going into Wittenberg that I would be more than just a number on a class roster since the class sizes were so small, but I did not realize the extent of how much my professors would impact my life as I’ve developed personal relationships with many of them.