UNK freshman Ella Buhlke, biology professor Kim Carlson share passion for research

UNK Biology student bonds with professor
UNK Biology student bonds with professor(press release)
Published: Jan. 6, 2023 at 9:13 PM CST
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KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - With her high GPA, near-perfect ACT score and impressive extracurriculars, Ella Buhlke had her pick of prestigious schools across the Midwest.

She chose the University of Nebraska at Kearney, largely because of her relationship with biology professor Kim Carlson.

“She’s one of my biggest role models,” said Ella, a freshman pre-medical student. “As a woman in STEM, it’s important to see other women in STEM who are strong, independent and successful in their careers. It’s really nice to work with her and observe her in that way.”

Carlson, a co-chair in the UNK Department of Biology, has mentored Buhlke since 2019, when she was a sophomore at Central City High School. A shared interest in science and research – and a friendship formed at UNK nearly three decades earlier – brought the two together.

Working in collaboration with Central City High School biology and health science teacher Chelle Gillan, a graduate of UNK’s online master’s program in biology, Carlson gave Ella an opportunity to pursue projects related to her lab’s ongoing research involving fruit flies.

Ella presented her research at the Greater Nebraska Science and Engineering Fair and Nebraska Junior Academy of Sciences State Science Fair, earning top honors multiple times and qualifying for six national and international competitions.

She credits Carlson and other members of the UNK team for making research enjoyable and engaging.

“It’s not a relationship where I’m told what to do and I do it. It’s very collaborative,” Ella said. “Dr. Carlson is a really great person to work with and she makes the whole process more fun. Everyone in the lab here is really supportive of each other.”

In November, the research she completed during high school was featured in Life, an international, peer-reviewed journal published monthly online by MDPI. The article, “Characterization of Cross-Species Transmission of Drosophila melanogaster Nora Virus,” focuses on an RNA virus first discovered in fruit flies in 2006 and its ability to infect other species of invertebrates.

“It was really nice to see three years of work throughout high school pay off in that way. That’s something that will be on my resume forever. Publications don’t go away. Publications are permanent. It’s something I can always look back at and say, ‘Yep, I was published as a 19-year-old in my freshman year of college,’” said Ella, who worked on the project with Gillan, Kim and Darby Carlson, UNK biology lecturer Alexis Hobbs and graduate students Blase Rokusek and Sunanda Rajput.

Ella will present their findings in March at the Genetics Society of America’s annual Drosophila Research Conference in Chicago. She’s currently using fruit flies to study an antibiotic that has the potential to treat viral infections and excelling academically as a dean’s list student who’s already taking upper-level biology courses.