One researched how to curb the effects of phantom limb pain in amputees; one worked with chemical modeling and computer programming to find simpler equations for vapor pressures; and, one analyzed specific proteins in the cell to transcribe DNA into RNA.

During the summer of 2019 in the research labs of the Schaap Science Center and VanderWerf Hall, sophomores McKenna Otto (biomedical engineering major), Tracy Westra (environmental engineering major), and Sasha Poland (biology major) threw down scientific knowledge with as much effort and gusto as they give their sport. The three are a sampling of the overall academic dedication ever at work, even in the summer, on the Hope College volleyball team — owners of an astounding Hope athletics team-best average GPA of 3.72.

Left to right: Tracy Westra, Sasha Poland and McKenna Otto in front of the Schaap Science Center

 “At Hope, we believe in educating the whole person, and McKenna, Sasha and Tracy are great examples of that,” said head coach Becky Schmidt. “They have demonstrated that they are exceptionally strong students through their discipline and conscientiousness.  They open their textbooks after finding their seats on the bus and can often be heard discussing class topics with teammates before practice. It is one thing to follow the directions on a syllabus and do what you need to do, learn what you need to learn in order to do well in a class. 

“Research is different,” Schmidt continues. “ While there are rules to follow in research, the process of adding new knowledge is more vague than the process of learning old knowledge.  It takes curiosity to ask better questions, perseverance to continue after frustrating results, and creativity to find new solutions to the problem.  These are skills that make for good scientists — and interestingly, they are the same skills that make for good volleyball players, too.” 

“I think it’s just cool how all of our opportunities here can blend together and we can use the lessons from each, from athletics, from chapel and Bible studies, from academics, to make us well-rounded people.” — Tracy Westra

 For Poland, Otto and Westra, extending their education into the summer months was a privilege each sought, pursued and never took for granted. Their entry into the world of STEM research came early in their academic careers, but since it’s a world that the three have plans to continue living in for a long while, making themselves at home with scientific equipment, methods and jargon seemed like the thing to do after their freshman years. And because of their early exposure, they found that world to be quite comfortable.

Sasha Poland, right, celebrates a Hope point with Tracy Westra, left.

“In general, I feel like Hope creates all of these opportunities that other schools may not have,” says Poland, she of the DNA-RNA research. “I just heard a talk at a symposium at Hope about diversity, and specifically women, in STEM, and I appreciate that Hope makes that a priority. So, getting the opportunity to do research here — something I never thought of pursuing prior to taking gen chem — and then feeling comfortable with it because of awesome professors is just amazing.”

Otto and Westra are both Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars, a program that helps Hope address the national gender gap in STEM fields by providing research experiences and mentoring support to female Hope students majoring in computer science, engineering and physics. The duo’s selection as CBL scholars in 2019 (along with six other Hope women) is a sign indicative of their academic qualifications as well as their passion for their fields of study.

McKenna Otto at the net

“One reason why I was super interested in being a Clare Boothe Luce Scholar was for the outreach part of the program,” says Otto who researched ways for amputees to manage phantom limb pain. “I think it’s definitely important for young girls to see women in STEM, yes, but also for young boys who get to see women interested in science and be good at it. It is a cool opportunity that we get to be with middle schoolers showing them things like virtual reality googles and other stuff. . . It’s just great to be able to pass on what we love.”

Tray Westra sets the ball

Balancing all of their interests — academic, athletic and otherwise — is a feat that requires as much concentration and organization as the hand-eye aptitude needed by an middle hitter, setter or libero. Middle hitter Otto, setter Westra and libero Poland handle their many-tasks-up-in-the-air acts deftly by looking to each other and their teammates to keep them even-keeled and, frankly, sane. With to-do lists that extend an arm’s length when they are in season, the volleyball court is their sanctuary, even though the demands there can feel as intense and difficult as the ones they have in the classroom. Yet, they do it all and they do it all well.

“I think it’s just cool how all of our opportunities here can blend together and we can use the lessons from each, from athletics, from chapel and Bible studies, from academics, to make us well-rounded people,” exudes Westra, the vapor-pressure equation researcher. “Being able to combine all of these things into our Hope experience is what a college education is all about.”

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