Through her own health struggles and those of others, one Carnegie Mellon student has been inspired to explore the hospital, the lab bench and the world.

Victoria Van Benschoten is in many ways a typical Carnegie Mellon University student — extremely busy, but that’s the way she prefers it. She’s a chemistry major and Science and Humanities Scholar with dreams of becoming a doctor. She’s a sister of Delta Delta Delta, Greek Sing chair, vice president of the Panhellenic executive board, a resident assistant, a dancer with Infra Dance Company and a buggy driver.

But there’s also something different about her. Something you wouldn’t know by looking at her. She has Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that prevents her from eating gluten. Her own health experiences have been a major catalyst toward her interest in becoming a doctor.

Van Benschoten has spent her undergraduate career immersed in her two main passions — health care and research. Now a junior, soon she’ll decide which path to go down. But the decision hasn’t been easy. Even as she moves forward in one area, her foot is still firmly planted in the other.

In the summer after her first year, Van Benschoten interned in the emergency room at Grant Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s the level I trauma center for Columbus, so we got anything from car crashes to gun shot wounds. You stepped in and didn’t know what was going to happen that day,” she said. Van Benschoten worked in the waiting room, keeping patients and families up-to-date on medical care and information from doctors.

That same summer, Van Benschoten worked for Get Covered America, a nonprofit organization in Ohio that helps people sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. She connected with many in the community, setting up outreach in soup kitchens, community centers and places of worship.

These complementary experiences further ignited Van Benschoten’s desire to dive headfirst into the field of health care. In the ER, she helped those in immediate need of medical attention and learned how to comfort patients as well as their families in their most vulnerable moments. “It was a very humbling experience,” Van Benschoten said.

Working at the ground level in the community was equally as valuable; hearing people’s stories about their lives and their health care struggles had a great impact.

“I had parents cry in my office because they would finally be able to take their children to the doctor,” Van Benschoten said. “It showed me another side of health care that I hadn’t really thought much about and opened my eyes to the fact that health insurance is a big barrier in people’s lives and that having it has the power to truly change lives.”

When she returned to CMU for her sophomore year, Van Benschoten started working in Chemistry Professor Stefan Bernhard’s laboratory. She makes iridium complexes that are used in photochemistry experiments to explore stronger electron and energy storing solutions.

But Van Benschoten wasn’t sure research was something she could do as a full-time career — until she came across disease model research.

In June 2017, Van Benschoten spent two months in Ireland, conducting research at University College, Dublin, in the laboratory of Niamh O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan is a lecturer in the Conway Institute of Biomolecular & Biomedical Research; her work focuses on hereditary spastic paraplegia, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the motor neurons in your legs. The interesting thing about hereditary spastic paraplegia is that the motor neurons don’t die, they just don’t work. O’Sullivan uses this knowledge to see if the effect can be reversed, which could lead to therapies for other neurodegenerative diseases.

Previous experiments have shown that the shape and number of mitochondria in diseased animal models is drastically different from healthy animal models. If the mitochondria weren’t dividing correctly, O’Sullivan believes it could lead to clues about how to restore neuron function in the disease model.

To test this out, Van Benschoten worked with populations of adult fruit flies and larvae to cross different genetic strains so that some populations would present the gene for hereditary spastic paraplegia. She then treated a sample of the diseased population with a genetic treatment that, in later tests, was shown to restore neurological function.

As a chemistry major, Van Benschoten said she enjoyed delving into more biologically focused research, particularly doing genetic experiments for the first time, which has helped her in her biological chemistry track courses at Carnegie Mellon.
“Dr. O’Sullivan really pushed me in my research and my understanding of genetics. I don’t have a big genetics background, but she took the time to work with me and give me the background in biology, and I really feel like I understand what was happening,” Van Benschoten said. “She also gave me the opportunity to travel if I needed the day off to go somewhere because I was in Europe for the summer.”

Van Benschoten caught the travel bug, stopping off for day and weekend trips in Germany, London, France and Amsterdam. She also checked an item off her bucket list by seeing the famed Mariinsky Ballet perform in London.
Van Benschoten said her experience in Ireland was something of an “a-ha” moment. As much as she loves organic synthesis, she couldn’t see pursuing that field of research for the rest of her life. But disease model research was different; she saw how it could have the potential to change lives. She realized it was something that she could see herself doing.

“I’m always debating between going into research or a health care field,” Van Benschoten said. “I’ll always be interested in research, but having Celiac disease really was the tipping point — knowing that people deal with health problems every day whether you can tell or not,” she said.

Van Benschoten plans to enter medical school after graduating next spring. “Fingers crossed I did well on my MCATs,” she said with a laugh. But until then, there are more pressing matters to focus on—like preparing for her final buggy races at Carnvial.

♦ by Emily Payne