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CALS Weekly

Illuminating Science

a woman wearing a red hat and white shirt stands in front of some trees
Biochemistry major Hali Harwood has taken her research to the next level with support from the new Harold Swaisgood Biochemistry Mentorship Fund.

By Jess Clarke

Reading a book about the brain ignited Hali Harwood’s mind to the wonders of science while she examined her life as a recent high school graduate. Later, her passion for insect-eating plants led her to biochemistry.

Her first research project as a student at a community college focused on understanding what the carnivorous plants needed that they couldn’t get from soil, unlike their botanical cousins. In looking for a meaningful way to apply her skills, Harwood, now a biochemistry major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University, eventually chose cancer research.

“I wanted to be part of a field that shapes the world with what we find out about it,” she says.

Harwood is on the path to doing just that as the first recipient of the Harold Swaisgood Biochemistry Mentorship Fund. CALS alumni Mary and Mark Sliwkowski, both of whom have professional backgrounds in biochemistry, established the fund, which provides a generous stipend to students for 15 months of research. Mark was recognized as a CALS Outstanding Alumnus in 2008 and Mary was recognized as a CALS Outstanding Alumna in 2023.

Harwood notes “the unparalleled mentorship” she has received in CALS’ Simpson Lab from the Sliwkowskis and her professors. “Having the Sliwkowskis interested in my professional development has been invaluable,” she says. “I feel so honored and fortunate…People believe in my ability to do challenging things.”

She’s made impressive progress addressing some of those challenges.

Harwood, who’ll graduate in May, started her current project in the spring of 2023. The research, sparked by a person with a developmental dysfunction who has a gene mutation, has focused on determining whether the mutation impacts the disorder. Mutations in this specific gene are associated with developmental disorders in the brain, heart and other parts of the body.

“Every day is completely illuminating. I’ve been working on something that’s truly unknown,” Harwood says. “It’s like doing a puzzle. Every day you find another piece and see how it falls into place.”

I feel so honored and fortunate … People believe in my ability to do challenging things.

Her research has clarified that the mutation is driving the dysfunction. The goal now? To figure out why.

Harwood’s findings could lead to treatments of the developmental dysfunction and help with genetic counseling for couples. The research also could have an impact on therapies and prognoses for breast and prostate cancers. That’s because the gene associated with the mutation she’s studying produces a protein involved in those cancers.

“By knowing about mutations and how they work…Hali’s also contributing to the knowledge base about cancer progression and therapy,” says Melanie Simpson, head of CALS’ Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry.

Harwood’s academic record and her pursuit of special research topics and graduate-level courses made her a strong candidate for the Swaisgood award. 

“She stood out immediately in the lab. She’s amazingly driven and curious,” Simpson says. “She’s functioning in the lab at the level of a graduate student.”

The Swaisgood fund, named for retired CALS professor Harold Swaisgood, helps  fast-track recipients’ research careers by allowing them to focus on their lab work without employment distractions and providing opportunities to participate at conferences. 

Harwood is presenting her work at the NC State Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium and at the Gordon Research Conference, an international science forum for doctoral- and post-doctoral-level researchers.

A prestigious conference is a long way from the difficult start, at 16, to her college career in Tennessee. Harwood worked full time while taking classes but had to withdraw due to family challenges. Eventually, she earned an associate’s degree in biology and chemistry before transferring to NC State.

During that tough time, it was American physicist Michio Kaku’s book The Future of the Mind that gave Harwood something to work toward.

“In a time of great uncertainty and anxiety, it gave me a determination to see a future for myself that wasn’t what I was currently experiencing,” she says. “It gave me purpose.”

That purpose ultimately led to her CALS research, and because of the Sliwkowskis’ generosity, solidified her career path. “This has been a defining period of my life really,” she says.   

Helping people live better lives, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than that.

Harwood will leave NC State with other key takeaways from CALS: broadening her perspectives from a diverse group of peers and faculty and feeling a sense of community. “Everyone here wants to create a better world, and it’s an incredible feeling to be aligned in that endeavor,” she says.

Her goal to create a better world will focus on cancer research. After Harwood’s CALS project ends this summer, she plans to continue lab work before applying to graduate school.

“My innate curiosity propels me, and the idea I can be of service to other people, as well as just wanting to put something good into the world,” she says. “Helping people live better lives, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than that.”