Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
If Rebecca Rasmussen, NIU’s newly named Student Lincoln Laureate, marches to her own beat, she certainly keeps a breathless pace.
Consider Rasmussen’s rapid accumulation of awards, leadership experiences and remarkable accomplishments: Presidential Scholar, peer mentor, Student Association senator, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, peer-assisted learning tutor, a leader in the Huskie Marching Band, principal flute in the NIU Philharmonic Orchestra, music minister and Bible-study leader at Newman Catholic Student Center.
And that’s just scratching the surface.
During her time at NIU, the 22-year-old University Honors senior has maintained nearly perfect grades while double-majoring in the demanding areas of music performance and biochemistry, with a minor in biological sciences.
Along the way, Rasmussen has received numerous scholarships and awards. Earlier this year, she won the prestigious Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to the Mayo Clinic, where she spent 10 weeks developing a new method for detecting and researching light-chain amyloidosis, a rare and deadly disease that affects kidney function.
Outstanding in and out of classroom
With such accomplishments, it’s not surprising that Rasmussen was selected as the 2016-17 NIU Student Lincoln Laureate, though she had strong competition from a pool of the university’s most outstanding students.
A senior from each of the four-year institutions of higher learning in Illinois is chosen annually to receive the Lincoln Academy’s distinguished award, recognizing excellence in both curricular and extracurricular activities. The awards were presented Saturday, Nov. 12, during the annual Student Laureate Convocation at the historic Old State Capitol in Springfield.
“I have not seen another student who achieves so much here at NIU and at the same time gives so much back to both campus and society,” says Victor Ryzhov, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who nominated Rasmussen for the Lincoln Laureate.
“With all those achievements,” Ryzhov adds, “Rebecca is the most humble and modest person you will ever meet.”
Surprising top takeaway
The Mayo Clinic experience was certainly among Rasmussen’s career highlights. “It was incredible to be around so many inspirational people and to see how research can actually translate into helping patients,” she says.
And the NIU Marching Band was “one of the best parts of my college experience.”
But Rasmussen cites neither as her most important takeaway from NIU.
“During my time at NIU, I feel that I’ve begun learning how to care more about others than myself,” she says. “To me, that’s a greater accomplishment than any academic award or leadership title.”
How many credit hours?!
A Franklin Park native, Rasmussen was an academic standout at East Leyden High School, where she was valedictorian, and had an array of universities to choose from before deciding to come to NIU on scholarship.
“NIU offered me so many opportunities—the hardest part was choosing which ones,” she says.
That dilemma was apparent from the start, when she decided to pursue both biochemistry and music. (She performs in NIU ensembles on two different instruments—flute and trombone.) The double-major required a ton of hard work. NIU undergraduates need 120 credit hours to graduate. When Rasmussen gets her diploma in May, she will have amassed more than 220.
"The music degree is actually somewhat more demanding because there are so many requirements outside of class," she says. “Being a music major is basically a 24/7 lifestyle, not to say that biochemistry is easy by any means.”
If music and science seems like an odd pairing, Rasmussen would disagree. “The focus on details, the planning, the creative thinking—those skills cross over both fields,” she says.
While music will always play a big role in her life—it provided her with her first leadership experiences on campus—she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry. She has already presented her research in several venues and is applying to graduate schools.
“I fell in love with biochemical research because of the freedom to creatively solve problems,” Rasmussen says. “I would love someday to be a professor, where I could conduct research and teach, but I’m open to other possibilities.”
This semester, while working in the laboratory of her adviser and influential mentor, biochemistry professor James Horn, she continues to conduct complex studies on protein activity.
Horn says Rasmussen isn’t merely an outstanding student.
“Rebecca is a truly exceptional individual,” he says. “Scientists, at their best, are creative beings. I have no doubt that Rebecca will meld her skills and knowledge over her graduate training to become a true leader.”
Other nominees for the NIU Student Lincoln Laureate included finalist Jessica Christofersen in journalism, first finalist Helen Spader in Spanish-translation and business, Jenna Bujarski in rhetoric and public communication, Kamila Krupiarz in mechanical engineering and Adam Pope in anthropology.