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 Overcoming Hurdles

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UMD Alumna Sarah Pollema on the Fast Track to Success

Sarah Pollema

Sarah Pollema graduated from UMD in 2003, then entered the Graduate Education in Medical Science program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). In 2004, she began a PhD program at UIC. Now Pollema is working as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University with goals of obtaining her own research lab.

“I would like to be in a full-time research position at a university,” she said. “It’s a very competitive field though. The whole process seems a little daunting, but I want to get my own lab.”

As a post-doc fellow, Pollema spends the majority of her time researching. Her particular focus is on various diseases, including Huntington’s disease and chronic pain.

Pollema could also see herself working in education. “I wouldn’t mind teaching at a small liberal arts college,” she said. There was a time, however, when just going to college seemed far-fetched.

From Dairy Farm to Post-Doc

Pollema grew up on a small dairy farm in Milaca, Minn. The sixth of eight children, her parents were hard working, and they dedicated their lives to providing a good home for their children. However, education was not a huge focus in their lives. “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, because dairy farmers don’t make a lot,” Pollema said. “No one in my family thought college was an option.”

In high school, Pollema ran track and cross-country for four years and was named the captain of the track and cross-country team her senior year. With the help of her high school track coach, Pollema came to see college as the opportunity to continue running. “We didn’t have a lot of exposure to college and, in my family, there wasn’t a mindset to go to college,” she said. “The help I received from my track coach really guided me.”

Pollema was drawn to UMD because her “oldest brother lives in Esko so by going to UMD I could be close to some family,” she said. After meeting with track coach John Fulkrod, Pollema was sure of her choice. “Coach Fulkrod was a very positive influence for me,” she said. “He’s really a great person who provided me with a lot of insights.” Pollema was awarded a partial track scholarship, Pell grants, academic scholarships, and Minnesota state grants to help fund her education.

Scientific Aspirations

Pollema was the first of her family to attend college, and she wasn’t quite sure what she was going to major in. She was interested in science and took her first biology course. Then she was hooked. “I wanted to dig deeper into how things work,” she said. “The world inside of a single cell fascinates me.”

Sarah Pollema and Allen Mensinger, assistant professor, Department of Biology

At UMD, Pollema’s adviser was associate professor of biology Allen Mensinger. “Al helped me find the direction I needed in my career,” she said. “He was a great asset.”

In a nomination letter, Mensinger wrote, “I have no doubt that Ms. Pollema will be one of our nation’s leading scientists by the end of the decade."

Pollema also spent a year and a half working in Jon Holy's lab, assistant professor, School of Medicine. She researched prostrate cancer and presented her findings at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research in spring 2003.

Inspiring Others

Pollema has unintentionally inspired other members of her family to pursue their academic dreams. She has two brothers who completed two-year programs. “More than anyone, I’ve inspired my nieces to go to UMD,” she said. Her twin nieces, Kirsten & Kaylee Pollema from Mora, Minn., plan to come to UMD in the fall of 2012. Another niece, from Esko, Minn., also plans to attend UMD even though she is only in eighth grade.

Although Pollema’s mother has passed on, she knows that both of her parents are proud. “My dad didn’t understand exactly what I was doing, but he is really proud of me for doing what I love,” she said.

As she reflects on her time at UMD, Pollema recalls how much the university offered her. It was the start of her career as a scientist. “I was led to UMD, and it was the perfect school for me,” she said. “I was in a great environment with great people. I’m really grateful for my time at UMD.”

Written by Mandee Kuglin

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,

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Last modified on 05/23/11 01:18 PM
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