With Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois. We have expanded the spotlight to focus also on the dedicated administrators who are passionate about building and strengthening a collaborative MSI community and to broaden the scope of our impact.
SARA RESSING, M.S., M.S.ED.
Microbial Systems Initiative
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Sara Ressing is the assistant director of the Microbial Systems Initiative. She began this role in September 2021 to implement the mission and educational plans of MSI and lead the development and delivery of the forthcoming Microbial Systems Analytics MS program within the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this role?
Early on in my undergraduate career, I participated in a general biology field lab checking small mammal traps as part of a long-term study. For a budding zoologist, this was like Christmas morning. Each trap held some new creature I would meet for the first time. I quickly added my name to the list of volunteers and soon spent nearly every weekend of the next four years at the field station.
This experience set off my early career as a researcher and led to close mentorships with several faculty. It also set in me a firm belief in the importance of undergraduate research. As a first-generation, low-income student, the experiences and relationships I built helped me to navigate college, develop self-efficacy and confidence, become engaged on campus, and ultimately, successfully apply to graduate programs.
It is that passion for research that led to my interest in the MSI position. MSI’s priorities, in particular, the development of research, educational, and professional development opportunities for trainees, match my educational philosophy closely. These are some of the first activities to which I have contributed in my role with MSI.
How does being a part of the Illinois community impact your work?
There is a wealth of institutional knowledge I have been able to take advantage of at Illinois. I am so thankful for the opportunity to work with and learn from staff across campus. This collegiality has allowed me to find the information I need to complete my work. The ideals of collaboration and inclusion daily inform my regular work as I support faculty, researchers, and trainees.
What are some challenges you have faced in this role?
There has been a learning curve for me in terms of developing the new Microbial Systems Analytics degree program. The first thing I learned was that these things take years! So, I’ve really had to develop my patience skills. This has also provided me with the biggest opportunity to see MSI’s collaborative nature at work. We’ve had some great feedback from not only faculty, but also industry partners regarding our planned curriculum. Hopefully, you will start to see more details about the program soon!
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part do you play in addressing these challenges?
MSI is strongly committed to supporting the vibrant microbial systems research community, which includes a conscious dedication to equity and inclusion. How we can best support and encourage researchers and trainees during COVID times is a regular topic of MSI team meetings. I plan to support MSI’s work through contributions to the diversity, equity, & Inclusion statement, developing programming to support mental health, and confronting issues of access at all levels.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities you are particularly excited about right now?
I am most excited about the hard work I’ve witnessed trainees accomplish this past semester. The Microbial Early-Career Researchers Association (MicroERA) has expanded under my encouragement. They tripled membership, hosted a very successful spring research symposium, and created an executive board of invested students you will meet in upcoming newsletters. This all would not have been possible without the hard work of MicroERA’s post-doctoral advisors, Kristen Farley and Yumi Iwadate. I am looking forward to the networking and professional development events they are planning for the next academic year!