MTSU senior Sarah Clark of Murfreesboro found herself in a rare, possibly once-in-a lifetime situation for 10 weeks earlier this year — selected by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for a virtual internship at the National Museum of Natural History.
A horse lover and biology researcher, Clark, 38, landed the assignment of studying the evolution of equine influenza and the relationship of equine and avian influenza lineages before 1950.
Clark, a wife, mother of a son and who earned her degree in biology (minor in science with a chemistry emphasis) Saturday, May 8, in Murphy Center, found herself working with National Museum of Natural History’s expert tandem of Sabrina Sholts and Audrey Lin, who preferred the internship be in-person, but understood the COVID-19 reasons it had to be virtual.
Add a dash of serendipity: MTSU alumna and Murfreesboro native Andrea Eller — a childhood and close friend of Clark — is a Smithsonian zoologist and previous Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow who recommended Clark for the internship.
“The internship was an extremely positive experience for me,” Clark said. “Although I did not locate possible tissue samples in the U.S., which was my primary goal, I was able to learn an incredible amount about what a project like this entails.
Clark said some of her goals for the internship “included building a network of contacts involved in equine research and expanding my understanding of the importance of equine animals in biological research. The outcome of these goals far exceeded my expectations.”
Through email and Zoom virtual meetings, she reached out to U.S. equine and veterinary researchers, but the most promising leads came from the United Kingdom. “All these experiences will be extremely beneficial to me as I continue working toward my goal of equine-focused research.”
Valuable team member
Clark’s background with horses and the equine industry, her work ethic and enthusiasm made her a valuable asset in collaborating with Sholts, curator of biological anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History and Clark’s mentor, and Lin, who is a Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow leading the equine influenza research project.
“Sarah has been a great help to us and is definitely a member of the team,” Sholts and Lin said in an email about Clark. “We gave her the huge challenge of searching for historic tissue samples for genomic analyses, and she made contacts with experts and institutions all over the country in order to assess what might be available.”
Sholts and Lin said they brought Clark into the project “specifically because of her connections to the horse community, managing these animals in the context of equestrian sports and competition, since no one else on the project had this expertise. We value Sarah’s input very much. She was very enthusiastic, hard-working, meticulous and had great instincts. … She will go very far in her chosen profession in the future.”
Clark said working with Sholts and Lin “was such a confidence-building experience. They were both supportive and encouraging about my ideas and the work I was doing. It was great to be a part of an incredible group of Smithsonian researchers.
“This was the first research I have been involved with that is focused on my species of interest, and I commented to Sabrina and Audrey, on more than one occasion, that I was having too much fun to call what I was doing ‘work.’ They both assured me that that is exactly how research should be. I could tell that they both are passionate about their work and love what they do.”
What’s next for the researcher?
After being in the workforce, the experience of returning to school as an older student with a family “has been wonderful, overall,” said Clark, who assisted with equine parasitology research at the University of Kentucky. “MTSU has always felt like home to me, although I got lost in the Science Building a couple times when I first came back. So many people in the Biology Department have been encouraging and kind to me, which kept me motivated, even during difficult moments. If I had known what a great experience this was going to be, I would not have waited so long to return.”
Clark, who has a 3.6 GPA and is a Pinnacle Honor Society member, has been accepted into MTSU biology’s master’s degree program this fall. Along with being a mom to son Captain Clark, 10, and wife of Christopher Clark, she will be a graduate teaching assistant, working with assistant professor Jessica Arbour in darter anatomy research
Clark will volunteer at the 25th annual Girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) event on Saturday, Sept. 25, featuring Eller as guest speaker. And Clark, who will be credited in any published Smithsonian/NMNH works regarding the equine study, has volunteered to continue pursuing this research.
Eller is the daughter of Jackie Eller, professor emerita in sociology and former interim dean for the College of Graduate Studies.
—Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)