UWM senior honored for undergraduate research

Two women stand in a lab.

Sarah Philippi was honored last week by the national Council of Undergraduate Research as one of just 60 students from around the country chosen to present their research work at Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C. She is only the second student ever from UWM selected for this honor, and the second in two years. Math and physics major Kirill Shmilovich was chosen last year.

She attended a reception and had the opportunity to visit Wisconsin congressional members and staff to discuss the importance of federal funding for research.

Philippi has been working with Karyn Frick, professor of psychology, since the second semester of her first year at UWM. Their work focuses on the neurobiology of learning and memory.

“This is a tremendous honor because Sarah was the only one in Wisconsin selected,” Frick said. “The fact that she was able to go and represent not only our lab, but also UWM, is fantastic because it showcases the quality of undergraduate research at UWM. It’s a great opportunity for the university to shine.”

Three people pose for a photo.
While in Washington, Philippi visited several congressional offices, including that of Sen. Tammy Baldwin. With her are Nigel Rothfels, director of UWM’s Office of Undergraduate Research, and Baldwin staffer Megan May.

In addition to her selection for Posters on the Hill, Philippi was one of seven UWM Senior Excellence in Research Award winners for 2018-2019 and was admitted to five of the top neuroscience PhD programs throughout the country, according to Frick.

Philippi has decided to continue her research on Alzheimer’s disease in the doctoral program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Over the past year, she’s been studying the how sex, the potent hormone 17β-estradiol and the genetic risk factor APOE4 interact to influence the incidence and severity of Alzheimer’s disease, using mice specially bred to exhibit Alzheimer’s pathology. The mice are tested on a variety of behavioral tasks to examine these interactions.

The work involves two genetic variants of the lipid-carrying protein Apolipoprotein E termed APOE3 and APOE4, the latter of which is the leading genetic risk factor for developing the most common form of Alzheimer’s. Women who carry the APOE4 variant are at far greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than men, and are less responsive to the beneficial effects of estrogen therapy. Philippi’s work is designed to figure out why. The results of this project will provide sorely needed information regarding the causes of Alzheimer’s, a disease that disproportionately affects women in general, Philippi said.

At Mt. Sinai, Philippi will be a graduate student in the neuroscience program, rotating through a number of labs in her first year to broaden her understanding of Alzheimer’s, she said.

“We want to eventually transfer the knowledge to humans,” she said, helping other researchers get a better understanding of how hormones regulate memory consolidation.

Philippi’s interest in the topic grew out a first-year course on the physiology of psychology. When Philippi expressed her interest in finding out more about this area at the cellular level, her teaching assistant, Lisa Taxier, who worked in Frick’s lab, suggested that Philippi apply.

“I liked the idea of studying learning and memory and the role of hormones. It has been a really empowering experience to explore these topics firsthand as well as contribute to these research initiatives.”

Proud to represent UWM

Philippi said she was proud to represent UWM and the value and importance of research to members of the congressional delegation.

“I’ve been saying for a really long time that increasing awareness about undergraduate research is one of the most important things to me, she said. “If I hadn’t stumbled across it, I would never have known that this is what I wanted to do as a career.”

Nigel Rothfels, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, and Tom Luljak, vice chancellor of University Relations, accompanied Philippi to the D.C. events.

UWM is nationally recognized for its undergraduate research. In November, the Council on Undergraduate Research awarded the 2018 Campus-Wide Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments to the university in recognition of the quality and depth of the research opportunities it provides to its undergrad students. UWM was one of two institutions nationally to receive the award, which was presented in January.

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