A variable path: Inside one student’s research journey

Gabby Pajak never thought she’d be conducting research at CSU. Throughout her high school career, she followed a carefully laid plan leading to an Ivy League future far away from her home state. When senior year came, a Boettcher Foundation scholarship changed everything.

“It made me reconsider everything,” she recalled. “Do I really need to go away to get the experience I’m looking for?”

Almost four years after opting to stay in Colorado, Gabby has no regrets. She’s a chemical and biological engineering student as well as a member of the CSU Track and Field team, and she’s certain that her experiences at CSU have given her opportunities that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Looking forward, she embraces the notion that sometimes the most impactful events in our lives simply aren’t part of the plan.

Striking a balance

Gabby knew she would pursue a career in research, and she’d always planned to do it out of state. When she received the Boettcher in-state scholarship, she started mulling over new options. CSU quickly stood out as the place that would provide her with both comfort and opportunity.

“Coming from a small town and then coming here, it didn’t feel overwhelming,” she said. “I knew I could get into research and I knew I could get involved and be part of the community and that’s what I wanted to do. There are so many [research] opportunities for undergrads here; it helped draw me to it.”

Since beginning her career as a Ram, Gabby has successfully balanced life both in and out of the classroom. Typically, she’s working in the lab or training alongside her track and field teammates.

“Other schools I was looking at, I could see myself getting attached to just academics and not having other outlets in my life. CSU is a really good fit and great community,” she said.

Research that could change lives

As an undergrad, Gabby is already immersed in potentially life-altering research. Dr. Tingting Yao served as Gabby’s faculty mentor and selected her to contribute to a project investigating how the protein Ubiquitin (Ub) could play a role in some diseases.

“We are looking at a protein that’s involved with DNA, Ubiquitin, and how it’s expanded and contracted so it influences basically what genes are turned on and how things are expressed. Mis-functions with it can lead to cancer.”

Gabby’s thesis centers on this protein exclusively, and the process hasn’t always been easy.

She recalled a time when she got caught up on a small step: her attempt to attach proteins was falling flat. After a half-dozen tries with Dr. Yao by her side she found success. That moment assured her that she was on the right path. “When we finally got it, it was such a cool feeling. It’s when I knew research was for me,” she said.

Seeing how her work could make a real-world impact also has led Gabby to develop a deep passion for it.

“I’ve been able to learn a ton and see that I do really like research. Even if it’s the smallest question, you never know how it will help someone else. That’s what I love about it,” she said.

Left brain, right brain

Research and creativity might seem contradictory on first glance, but Gabby points out that creativity is a foundational skill a researcher needs to find success.

“That’s what research is — it’s all about creativity. You have to think outside of the box because you’re figuring out what no one else has the answer to.”

She credits Dr. Yao for teaching her to lean on both sides of her brain during the research process.

“Dr. Yao is super creative and has been such a great mentor. The project she’s given me and created is so out of the box and such a novel technique. It makes me excited about it,” she explained.

Community in the lab

Gabby isn’t treated like a student in the lab. Faculty and Ph.D.-level researchers treat her like the team member she is respecting her opinion and brainstorming alongside her.

“It isn’t just about the question you’re asking. It’s how you’re asking it, and it’s how the people around you are approaching it, and whether it’s collaborative or not,” she explained.

When it comes to research, great minds often don’t think alike. If teams of researchers with varied experience and viewpoints come together, it can be the key to success.

“Everyone [I work with] is basically from a different country and a different region of the world. I love that; it’s all these different minds and perspectives and I think that leads to great findings,” she said.

Gabby has found that this emphasis on working together, coupled with one-on-one attention, has enabled her to find her true calling. “They helped foster [interest]. I always thought I wanted to do research but I’d never done it so when I started doing it and I still really enjoyed it, that was exciting for me,” she said.

The best-laid plan

Sometimes the best-laid plans aren’t meant to be — and that’s fine by Gabby. She knows now that the most-influential events in our lives often catch us by surprise. Her time at CSU, even though unplanned, was the experience she needed to grow.

“Some Ivy League schools probably wouldn’t have had the same sense of community and the same encouragement from advisors,” she said.

Thanks to her undergraduate research experiences, Gabby is certain a future in scientific research is for her. She’s looking into research projects abroad and volunteer programs like Americorps.

Whatever she chooses, she’s certain of one thing: life’s curve balls sometimes turn into the best hits.

Jill Baylis

Jill was a staff member in the Office of Admissions until 2019 when she moved to Denver. As a first-generation college student, she focused on simplifying the college admissions process and helping future Rams find community on campus.