Many of Ferris State University’s Spring 2016 graduates could attest to similar life experiences. Those include beginning collegiate life the same year they completed high school, mixing an internship with coursework to broaden their opportunities, and that they will look forward to marriage, then building a family as their career develops.
Shaughna Langerak of Howard City, Mich., is outside of that subset. At commencement on Friday, May 6, she will receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Biotechnology, with a dual major in Environmental Biology. Langerak is proud that in her college years, she balanced raising three children, extended service as a research assistant, and participation in the university’s Honors Program, while becoming the first member of her family to earn a degree.
Langerak’s winding path toward the goal of becoming a professor began in Philadelphia, Pa., but Shaughna’s family moved to White Cloud, Mich., when she was a teenager. After completing high school, she busied herself with working, marrying her husband, Tom, and starting a family. All through that time, she held onto childhood dreams.
“I used to talk about going to college, with hopes of getting my degree, and having a career,” Langerak said. “After I had kids, I felt I needed more, and wanted to prove myself, to pursue my dream of graduation.”
Langerak began her studies at Ferris after researching prospects for higher education in the region, and entered the university with designs on pursuing an Environmental Biology degree.
“Ferris really was my best opportunity, in terms of the available scholarships, and the chance to do research,” Langerak said. “I thought Environmental Biology was all that I’d do here, but when I heard about the chance to do research, in Biotechnology, it lit me up.”
Associate professor of Biology, Chanqi Zhu, has completed an extensive review of the metabolism of fruit flies, working to manipulate their lifespan by altering what is known as Activin Signaling. Langerak said that research is ready to be published, and she is honored to have collaborated in this study, which has implications for humans, as well as fruit flies.
“I was really lucky to be involved throughout the process,” Langerak said. “It was a combination of persistence on my part, and continued availability to stay involved on the part of the Biological Sciences department. They funded two summer research fellowships, along with faculty-sponsored grants.”
Langerak served as a research technician, as the study led by Zhu focused on a cell-signaling pathway related to the aging process.
“Cells have a way of taking care of bad proteins, genes are transcribed and can leave behind healthy ones, which function better,” Langerak said. “Older bodies can’t accomplish this function well, and as a result, there’s muscle deterioration.”
Langerak began duties as a teaching assistant in laboratory classes, while continuing on professor Zhu’s research team, where work was underway to adjust Activin levels, and monitor the results.
“We were able to up-regulate this compound, and the flies lived 10 to 20 percent longer,” Langerak said. “When we limited Activin in the sample group, the results were bad. Their lifespans were reduced by 72 percent, so you definitely want this in your system.”
Langerak combined these duties with as many as 16 credit hours a semester, and still managed to spend quality time with her 8-year old daughter, Kris; 13-year old son, Mike; and 14-year old daughter, Angel.
“Working in a lab, you can forget at times that there’s more than molecules going on,” Langerak said. “It’s been great that my kids love science, and there’s a constant source of education coming their way. They have picked up plenty from being with us.”
Langerak said pursuing her degree, supporting the research effort and being a mother and wife can be complex at times, and there are complications, as well as benefits that come from her involvement in the Honors program.
“As a family, we have all learned a great deal about acceptance,” Langerak said. “It’s made our whole family appreciate each other, and the process. While involvement in the Honors program does give me more to do, the cultural events are fantastic, as I get quality time with my kids. My research activities help me meet certain obligations to the program. I can take down two birds with one stone.”
Langerak wants her peers in the Biotech Club to know that they have been important to her pursuit of academic excellence.
“I want to give them a ‘shout out,’ as their group support has been great,” Langerak said. “Group study, and the student organization gatherings have given me an important mix of academic and social focus.”
This fall, Langerak will enter a Master of Science in Biology program at Central Michigan University, with a concentration on Cell and Molecular Biology. While she will have to balance her studies there with obligations as a teaching assistant, she is excited by the opportunity.
“I feel so confident. I am not sure my academic career would have gone this way, without waiting to start school, and making use of my life experience,” Langerak said. “I want to go on and get my doctorate, and become a professor myself. As far as facing the rigors of a Master’s program, how much more can they present to me that I haven’t already experienced here, with research, teaching, and being part of the Honors program?”
Before that next phase begins, Langerak is looking forward to a summer spent with her family, away from the classroom and laboratory.
“I want to go hiking, just to get outside,” Langerak said. “I will use that time to reset my mind.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Shaughna Langerak of Howard City, Mich. will graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences in a ceremony that will take place Friday, May 6 in Big Rapids.