Building Community from Residence Halls to Research Labs

Square grid of four college studentsResearch and community are hardly mutually exclusive pursuits. After all, the best science is often collaborative. Still, not every undergraduate student devotes as much energy to bringing the two together as Sofia Jepson. For that, and much more, Jepson, a senior from Alaska, has been named to the 2020 Husky 100 list.

Joining Jepson on the Husky 100 List are fellow ISCRM trainees Eric Yang (DeForest Lab), Claire Branley (Moussavi-Harami Lab), and Liam Sullivan (Fu Lab).

Jepson arrived on the University of Washington campus with a love of biology, a budding interest in engineering, and the pang of isolation felt by many out-of-state freshmen. Over the next four years, she would find a community in the residence halls and an outlet for her natural curiosity in the Department of Bioengineering.

“Biology had a logic that always made sense to me, and it was definitely my favorite class in high school,” says Jepson. “For the same reasons, I always enjoyed genetics because it’s a universal language that all organisms share. So as I was deciding what to study, the opportunity to use biology and genetics to solve real problems made bioengineering a great fit for me.”

The small classes in the Bioengineering department suited Jepson, who soon found an opportunity to develop her research skills under the mentorship of Alec Smith, an Acting Instructor in Department of Physiology and Biophysics and the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM). Soon, Jepson was spending 15-20 hours a week in the lab of ISCRM faculty member David Mack PhD, Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine and Bioengineering.

Solving Real World Problems

Jepson embraced her role in a research community focused heavily on stem cells. “I’ve always been interested in tissue engineering. And the idea of being able to grow cells is the coolest thing ever.”

A group photo of scientists in a courtyard
Sofia Jepson (front row, second from left) with the Mack Lab on UW Medicine’s South Lake Union campus. Her mentors: David Mack (back left) and Alec Smith (second to left)

Soon, she was putting her problem-solving skills to practical use. Researchers like Smith and Mack use stem cells to study how muscle diseases like ALS and muscular dystrophy begin and how best to treat them. As a student researcher, Jepson helped them answer these sorts of questions by developing a system that measures how different factors effect the force of diseased muscle. In addition to advancing current knowledge of muscle biology, the investigation was part of a year-long research capstone project that counted toward graduation from Department of Bioengineering.

Not surprisingly, it was Smith who nominated Jepson for the Husky 100 list.  “Sofia has shown incredible dedication to her research project,” says Smith. “She’s persevered through adversity and is now generating valuable data that we will building off for years to come.”

Mack echoes Smith’s praise. “Sofia was not intimated by the challenges of turning stem cells in 3D muscle tissue.  She just broke down the big problem into manageable-sized tasks and worked through them day after day.”

Life Beyond the Lab

Meanwhile, Jepson has carved out time to help others persevere. Inspired by the resident advisors who made her feel “a thousand time more supported and connected” as a freshman, she became an R.A. herself, giving back by creating a welcoming environment for new classes of Huskies.

Sofia Jepson sitting on the floor in a dormitory hallway
Jepson in Willow Hall, where she has served as Residence Advisor

Currently, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jepson is stationed at Willow Hall, where her role has shifted from building community to building safety. Despite the distancing in the dorms, the opportunity to remind younger students that they are not alone has taken some of the sting out of the disruption to her academic career.

Jepson’s impact as a role model extends well beyond Willow Hall. She has also lit the runway for incoming engineering students as a mentor in the department’s Freshman Interest Group – just another way to build community and offer broader exposure for other students drawn to UW by an urge to use a love of math and science to solve problems.

What’s next for Jepson?

“I keep asking that myself,” she says. “I’m definitely looking for industry experience. My idea is to take time away from school and then potentially move on to a PhD program. One of my dreams is to be a professor. I really want to focus on the best practices of teaching that build community to make the learning experience as positive as possible.”

Her mentor, Alec Smith, predicts a bright future for Jepson. “Her enthusiasm is a constant ray of sunshine in the lab and I have absolutely no doubt she will excel wherever she chooses to go after graduation. Her strong work ethic, positive attitude, and warm demeanor make her a first rate student and I can think of nobody better to represent ISCRM and UW as part of this year’s Husky 100.”