Alumna Earns Top NIH Award for Medical Research

Ruthellen "Elle" (Tornberg) Anderson at work in the Francis Lab at Sanford Research. (Photo courtesy of Sanford Health.)

Augustana alumna Ruthellen "Elle" (Tornberg) Anderson '14 recently received a prestigious National Institutes of Health F30 National Research Service Award (NRSA), an honor recognizing promising predoctoral students during their mentored dissertation research and clinical training.

Anderson, who earned a Goldwater Scholarship during her time at Augustana, is now in her fourth year of an MD-PhD program and is working for Sanford Research. We caught up with her to learn more about her work and the award.

Q. How far are you through your program?

A. I am currently starting my fourth year of the MD-PhD program at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, which simply means I’ve finished the first two years of medical school and am in my second year of graduate work in Dr. Kevin Francis’s laboratory at Sanford Research. Once I’ve finished my research project, I’ll be back in the hospital for another two years for clinical rotations.

Q. The NRSA program supports promising predoctoral students during their mentored dissertation research and clinical training. Can you share what your dissertation research is focused on?

A. Our research is focused on understanding the importance of cholesterol during neurodevelopment, particularly within the context of a group of rare pediatric syndromes in which cholesterol synthesis is disrupted. To study how neurons are affected within these conditions, our lab uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from skin biopsies/blood samples donated from patients with these syndromes, which can be used to model how central nervous system development and function is affected. The focus of my dissertation project is to understand how cellular trafficking, in particular clathrin-mediated endocytosis, is affected by altering sterol homeostasis.

Q. What drew you to pursue an MD-PhD program?

A. My interest in medicine started early on as I grew up around my parents veterinary practice where I was always impressed with the way they cared for their (four-legged) patients and clients. This eventually led me to pursue a biochemistry degree in college.

As for research, I have to give all the credit to my chemistry and biology professors who got me involved in summer research following my freshman year at Augie and beyond.

There is so much we have yet to understand in medicine ... it’s made the intersection between medicine/research feel like the sweet spot. I feel very fortunate to have been able to pursue both!

Q. Looking ahead, what area of medicine/research do you hope to specialize in?

A. Since I work in a stem cell biology lab, I like to say that I’m “undifferentiated” as to what area of medicine I will specialize in someday! Right now I’ve been leaning towards neonatology or pediatric neurology/genetics.