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Emma Luhmann: Surprised by a passion for biomedical research

Date: Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Hometown: Dayton, Iowa

Education: Grinnell College

“When I went into college, I had no idea that I wanted to be a ‘science person,’” says first-year PhD student Emma Luhmann.  

Luhmann’s mother worked as a researcher in veterinary medicine as Luhmann was growing up, so she was exposed to careers in science from an early age. She didn’t catch the “research bug” herself until much later, when she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College. 

I took a few science courses my first year and really enjoyed it,” she says. “I was a double major in biology and French. I liked doing humanities and art while I was doing STEM.” 

After completing her undergraduate studies, she connected with Lilliana Radoshevich, PhD, in the UI Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Radoshevich is also a Grinnell College alumna, and she hired Luhmann to work in the new lab she was starting at Iowa. Luhmann began as the lab manager, handling logistics, ordering supplies, and helping establish protocols. 

"When I started, I didn't have any intentions of going to graduate school or having a career in research. I liked science, and I was looking for a job,” Luhmann says. “But the longer I worked for her, the more confidence I got working on some of my own projects, and I started asking my own questions.” 

Emma Luhmann stands next to the mass spectrometer in the lab where she works.

Luhmann began to explore working with mass spectrometry (or “mass spec”), an analytical tool which Radoshevich’s lab uses to answer questions about host responses to infection. 

Eventually it just became obvious that this is something I like, and that I could do it for the rest of my life if I got my PhD,” she says. “It was funny because I feel like I spent a lot of time after college trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I didn't realize that I was already doing it.” 

Radoshevich arranged for Luhmann to attend a six-week internship in a mass spectrometry lab in Belgium, and Luhmann’s appreciation for the method deepened. 

"My day-to-day after that was a lot of mass spec sample prep and analysis, working with collaborators we had throughout the university,” Luhmann says.  "I learned a lot about other people's research and projects by doing the mass spec. I got to see other people's scientific questions and how our analytical tool could answer them.” 

She began applying to PhD programs, initially with the intention of leaving the University of Iowa

I applied to quite a few programs, but I applied to Iowa, as well, because it's a great program,” she says. “My final decision came down to a lot of things. I have family close by; I have a life here. There was no reason to uproot my life because I knew my training here would be just as strong as in other places. And I have a support system here that's pretty important to me that I didn't envision going through PhD training without.” 

Luhmann is in a somewhat different position compared to many of her incoming biomedical sciences classmates: She already has years of experience working in one of the labs. Still, she is determined to keep her mind open as she rotates through other labs in her first year. 

"I’m definitely open to another area,” she says. “Before I joined Lily's lab, I had no idea that I would be really into proteins and mass spec. I feel like until you try something, you can't always know." 

Currently, she thinks she would like to end up in clinical chemistry for her career, which would be a way to bring her interest in mass spectrometry into a clinical setting. 

Before I joined Lily's lab, I had no idea that I would be really into proteins and mass spec. I feel like until you try something, you can't always know.

An amazing clinical chemist here at Iowa, Dr. Anna Merrill, has been a great mentor for me,” she says. “She did her PhD with a big mass spec focus, and she thinks about developing and improving diagnostic measures. That's something I'd really like to pursue because it's not well applied clinically yet as a technology.” 

She looks forward to stretching beyond the bench as she joins a cohort of fellow investigators in training. 

"I'm excited to take classes again,” Luhmann says. I've always liked being a student, so that's going to be fun.” 

She is also looking forward to the chance to experiment with different lab settings and find the right fit for her future career in biomedical science.  

"I've been in Lily's lab for quite a few years," she says. “I'm excited to see what other labs are like. I think I know what I want to do, but I'm totally prepared for that to change.”