Ellen Quillen

Headshot of Ellen Quillen


KU major: Biology (Genetics) and a minor in Anthropology, Class of 2005

Current occupation: Assistant Professor, Molecular Medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine

Research mentor while at KU: Michael Crawford

Describe the undergraduate research experience that you had while at KU:

A: During my time at KU, I was welcomed into Dr. Crawford's research lab where I was able to participate in field work with Mennonite populations in Western Kansas. We were interested in understanding how genetic variants contribute to risk of heart disease in an otherwise healthy population. Thanks to grant support for undergraduate research from the University, I was also able to complete an honors thesis on the genetic variation among small groups of people living in Newfoundland, Canada.


Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned while doing undergraduate research? 

A: Undergraduate research helped me realize that I love the thrill of the chase! Research is a way for you to be the first person in the world to ever learn something and that is truly exciting.


Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates who might be interested in doing research or creative scholarship?

A: If you think you may be interested in doing research as a career, get involved as early as you can and spend as much time there as you can. Not only will this help you figure out if research is a good career path for you, but it takes quite a bit of learning before you are ready to take on projects of your own. Also, take statistics and computer programming classes! You will be ahead of the curve for any natural and social science research you may want to do now or in the future.


Q: Do you use any of the skills or perspectives gained doing research in your current occupation?  How so?

A: I still do research today. My work focuses on using statistical methods to integrate genetic variation, environment, gene expression, and protein analysis to better understand the causes of bone diseases and predict which patients will respond to treatment. I routinely use skills learned during my time at KU, but perhaps the most important is persistence. Research is new and different every day, which I love. But because you are trying to answer questions that no one has ever answered before, you are going to fail as much or more than you succeed. The ability to pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, and try again is key to being a success in research (and life).


Q: Many undergraduate researchers are making decisions about what to do after they graduate from KU. Having been in those shoes, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Do you have any advice?

A: There are also a lot of jobs in research that do not require you to have a master's or PhD, and those lab technician jobs are frequently where people get to do hands-on work. So really spend some time figuring out what type of job you want before deciding you need to go to graduate school. When you are surrounded by professors with PhDs and graduate students, it's easy to think that is the only path to jobs in research. But there is a whole world of research technician jobs at universities, government labs, and private industry that you can do with a bachelor's degree. Spending some time working as a research assistant for a few years can help you figure out if you should get an advanced degree and what field you want to pursue.