Fall 2012

Science Alumni

Rebecca Ryals: Making an Environmental Impact

Rebecca Ryals ’04 says that her interest in environmental science can be traced back to her undergraduate years at Marywood. While working on an environmental science project with Professor Deborah Hokien in 2004, Ryals was unknowingly planting the seeds for a future career in science.

After graduating from Marywood in 2004, Ryals traveled the country, exploring her academic interests at various institutions. A recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Ryals earned her Ph.D. in Soil Biochemistry and Ecosystem Science. While there, she focused on the impact of climate change on carbon storage and the nitrogen disposition effects on California soils. In short, her research looks at how farmers and ranchers can manage their land so that they can help solve climate change.

When asked how her undergraduate years at Marywood have helped to shape her career, Ryals says that the liberal arts education she received made her realize that science is not just about field work or test tubes, but, she says, science is about people and the impact the scientific process can have on the world.

“[At Marywood], I learned a lot about how science is actually done,” she says. “I really valued the liberal arts education I got there because environmental problem solving is not just about science. It is about people.”

Ryals is passionate about climate change education and outreach, and she has a history of putting her ideas into practice. As an undergraduate, Ryals was one of the first students to advocate for the use of clean, renewable energy on Marywood’s campus. A free-standing wind turbine was later installed, a machine that harnesses wind energy to supplement the power to the Aquatics Center.

Ryals is presently completing a two-year post doctorate at Brown University, where she is continuing her work focusing on reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

“I am interested in finding creative ways to solve environmental problems,” she said. “I really love teaching, and I want to teach good science that is going to influence environmental policy.”

Captain Dustin O'Keefe: An Officer and a Gentleman—and an ER Doc

Dustin O’Keefe ’05 thought about a career in medicine back in high school, but wasn’t quite sure what that might be. Marywood’s highly regarded Physician Assistant program drew him to the University, but it wasn’t long before he did an about face. He switched his major to Biology/Pre-professional track, and took aim at med school.

“I found strong support and great mentors in Dr. Deborah Hokien and Dr. Peter Eden (then Chair of the Science Department),” Dustin says. “Small classes and personalized attention from great faculty definitely molded me, and I believe I had a better education than most in bigger universities. There were many research opportunities, and I was able to independently develop a protocol, write a grant proposal, and design my experiments,” he adds.

That strong mentorship and faculty accessibility provided, in effect, the big guns Dustin could roll out for medical school, so he applied well-armed with enthusiastic letters of recommendation from Marywood teachers and mentors. Temple University had been his first choice, and he was one of 180 selected that year out of 10,000 applicants.

He also joined the U.S. Army through the Health Professions Scholarship Program. This, Dustin says, was certainly a big financial advantage—but in addition, he adds, “Army residency training programs are among the top in the country, and that was also a big draw for me. “

Perhaps above all, though, it meant an opportunity to continue a family tradition of service to the nation. “I have many cousins and siblings in my generation who have joined the armed services in many different capacities,” Dustin says. Among these is his youngest brother, Dylan, who received an ROTC scholarship and older brother, Dennis ’04, who earned his MBA at Marywood and is an intel analyst with the National Guard.

Other O’Keefe family Marywood alums, incidentally, include his sister Danielle O’Keefe Mervau ’07, who earned her degree in elementary education—and who has written a children’s book, illustrated by younger brother, Devon O’Keefe ’12, who received his BFA in Illustration.

Before joining the Army, Dustin had already allied himself with an important “commander in chief,” when he met and married his wife, Carlin, a Penn State grad with a degree in Education, back home looking for job opportunities. It happened almost literally in the blink of an eye. Dustin was working at Northeastern Eye Institute, waiting out med school applications. Carlin came in to get her eyes checked—the very day Dustin happened to be working with the doctor she happened to be seeing. They ended up seeing eye-to-eye, so to speak. The rest was history.

A very recent part of that history is lively twin boys, Maddox and Elijah.

Today, Captain Dustin O’Keefe is stationed at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Hood, Texas, where he is starting the second year of a three-year internship program in Emergency Medicine, with a goal of becoming a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician. “I love the fast pace, quick decision making, and diversity of patients and problems,” Dustin says. “My time is spent mainly in the emergency room…seeing patients, learning as much as I can, reading, giving lectures, conducting research.”

A major research part involves looking at the effect of Zofran (an anti-emetic medicine frequently used in emergency rooms) and its relationship to heart contraction.

As for future plans: “… not sure if I’ll stay in the Army, but I’m enjoying army medicine… interested in becoming a practicing physician…where I can apply research. I’m definitely a people person.
“I am honored to serve and watch over the health of soldiers and their families,” Dustin says.

“After I graduate from Army residency…well…” he concludes, “we’re open to whatever God decides.”

Joshua Slee: Transforming Lives through Molecular Research

When Joshua Slee ’07 began his college career at Marywood University, he envisioned himself graduating and moving on to medical school to earn his M.D. Josh signed up for the requisite coursework and began working his way through the curriculum when he made his own discovery – maybe a career in research was the path he needed to take.

It was the teachings of Dr. Peter Eden, a former faculty member and Science Department Chairperson (now President of Landmark College, Putney, VT), that really impressed Josh, who said, “He challenged all of his students to go beyond what was in the textbook and pursue a deeper understanding of scientific principles.” Soon, Josh was pursuing a different goal, and within no time he was initiating his own research projects and presenting his work at regional and national conferences with the help of Dr. Deborah Hokien, Professor of Science, and Dr. Kenneth W. Rundell, former Director of the Human Physiology Lab.

While working toward his biotechnology degree, Josh was also a four-year starter on the Men’s Basketball team. He credits Coach Eric Grundman with introducing him to Marywood and convincing him that it was the right university for him. “He didn’t know it at the time, but he set in motion everything that I have become today,” Josh said. During his time at Marywood, the Men’s team advanced to the league playoffs, and they were met with cheering fans when their bus arrived on Adams Avenue. “That’s something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Today, Josh is a doctoral candidate at Lehigh University studying molecular and cell biology. He’s currently studying in depth the effects of inflammation on the human body, an interest fostered under the instruction of Dr. Rundell in relation to asthma and other respiratory diseases. Currently, he’s investigating how the inflammatory process promotes the development of atherosclerosis, commonly known as heart disease. Through his dissertation work, he hopes to discover how to stop or slow the inflammatory response in the body.

After finishing his doctorate, Josh hopes to become a tenured professor or a researcher at a pharmaceutical company. Josh lives in Bethlehem, PA, with his wife, Kyle Hutton Slee ’08.

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