Alyssa Mickle, BHC Scholar and biomedical sciences and engineering double major, is planning to complete her Honors Undergraduate Thesis this fall with the goal of finding more effective ways to test osteoarthritis drugs. She’s one of two members of the inaugural Medicine Engineering Dual-Degree cohort. Alyssa is also a member of the President’s Leadership Council and has co-founded a UCF chapter of the Global Medical Brigades. Her plans include pursuing her Ph.D. with aspirations of conducting research at a biotechnology company.

Could you elaborate on your research experience at Lake Nona, and what you are doing there? 

I work in Dr. Kean’s Cell and Tissue Engineering Lab which is part of the Biionix cluster. I'm currently developing and testing a non-destructive reporter cell for expression of the transcription factor SOX9 in cartilage tissue using a secreted luciferase. Since SOX9 influences cartilage tissue's mechanical properties and is downregulated in osteoarthritis, such a reporter cell would be a useful cellular model for high throughput screening of osteoarthritis drug candidates. Additionally, it could be a tool for improving culturing methods by optimizing SOX9 expression to grow larger and stronger tissue engineered cartilage sheets as a replacement of damaged arthritic tissue.

Tell us about yourself. Why did you choose UCF? Why are you interested in pursuing your particular majors - I understand that you're a biomedical sciences/engineering double major. Is there a story there? 

I’m a North Carolina native, and as someone originally from a small, rural town I always knew I wanted to go to a large college. Most out-of-state schools were out of the question given the increased expense, but UCF’s National Merit scholarship program made it a possibility. When I came to tour, I fell in love with the campus and the city; the atmosphere of campus was incredible, and I knew right away it was a great fit.

For my major, I’m one of two members of the inaugural Medicine Engineering Dual-Degree (MEDD) cohort. When I found out about UCF’s new dual degree option, I decided to pursue it both for the challenge and to get a broader, interdisciplinary background. While engineering and medicine seem like different fields on the surface, studying both has shown me just how much overlap and connection there is between the two.

What influential experiences (leadership, research, internship, study abroad, etc.) have you had so far while at UCF?

Besides my research experiences at UCF and UF, I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in several organizations and offices around campus over the past three years. As a freshman, I started working for Undergraduate Admissions, giving tours to prospective National Merit students and their families just like the ones I went on in high school. I also got involved with the Global Medical Brigades (GMB), a service organization focusing on medical care for sustainable international development, and served as their volunteering director for the following year. As a member of GMB, I found out that UCF did not yet have a chapter of Global Engineering Brigades, so I recruited a friend to start the chapter with me as co-presidents. We were able to get the new chapter up and running within the year and led 20 students on brigade to Honduras in May 2019 to map out and design a clean water system for the rural community La Cuesta. I now serve as UCF’s campus chairperson for Global Brigades, working to bring more chapters to campus and increase awareness of and involvement in the organization. I’m also a second-year member of President’s Leadership Council and served as a PR Coordinator for the 2019-2020 year. 

What are you doing after graduation? How is the BHC helping you to achieve these goals? 

Having such an incredible research mentor, Dr. Kean solidified my post-graduation plans to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular biology or a related field; I’m currently working on filling out graduate school applications. The Burnett Honors College has played an essential role in helping me get the resources I needed to both find the right future path and be competitive enough to pursue it. The Office of Honors Research in particular has been incredibly helpful both by sharing resources for presentation and grant opportunities and by sponsoring the honors thesis program. Being part of the BHC has also surrounded me with an incredible network of motivated peers who push me to be better every day.  

What advice do you have for other students who may want to follow a similar path? 

If you're interested in starting research, I would say don't let rejections get in your way. The summer I got my internship at UF, I also applied to 5 other REU sites and was waitlisted or rejected by them all due to a lack of previous research experience. I got a few of the rejections back before sending my application in to UF, and it was almost disheartening enough to keep me from applying at all. It may be hard to get that first acceptance since training a new student is an investment for a lab, but it only takes one yes. From an involvement standpoint, my advice is to join clubs early. My most impactful involvement experiences have been long term and built on each other; starting Global Engineering Brigades took over a year, and I wouldn’t have had that opportunity had I waited to join Medical Brigades later in my college career.

What is your favorite guilty pleasure?

My guilty pleasure is spending entirely too much time and money at the Orlando theme parks. I have annual passes to Universal, Disney, and Busch Gardens, and before the shutdown, I liked to spend my weekends there with friends. Some of my favorite college memories have been exploring all of Epcot’s festivals or screaming through haunted houses at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. I’ve even taken my theme park addiction one step further by racing in runDisney events. I’ve run 2 half marathons at Magic Kingdom so far and have signed up for a full marathon in January; hopefully by then, it will be safe to run it in person!