Minot State’s Skinner presents at Posters on the Hill

By Michael Linnell
University Communications Director

MINOT, N.D. – Minot State University’s Tess Skinner had to build her confidence in chemistry.

After a less-than-positive experience at the University of Minnesota during her first year of college, Skinner didn’t want anything to do with chemistry. She enrolled at Minot State after she moved to the Magic City with her husband, Douglas, who was stationed at the Minot Air Force Base.

“When I first moved to Minot, I was just driving down Broadway and saw the signs for Minot State and became interested in going back to school,” she said. “I did some research and felt this was a great place to start again. At first I was just biology. I was terrified of chemistry.”

Fast forward five years and a double major in chemistry and biology, Skinner is grateful for the faculty at Minot State for turning her academic career around.

“At Minnesota, I was in a ‘gen chem’ class of 400 students and you can’t get one on one help if you are having issues,” she said. “College chemistry was just different than what I was used to (in high school) — it was a different way to learn it — and I struggled. It was a really bad experience. I did not want to take ‘gen chem’ over again, but after getting to know (MSU professor Naomi Winburn), she knew me by name here and could explain A and B and C and even D if I needed. She was super supportive.”

That support along with a renewed confidence in her abilities kick started a tremendous final three years for Skinner, culminating in being selected for the prestigious Posters on the Hill in April.

“It probably took me until my second year here to finally have confidence in my abilities,” Skinner said.

Posters on the Hill, an annual undergraduate poster session on Capitol Hill hosted by the Council on Undergraduate Research highlighting the ongoing work of undergraduate researchers from across the United States, was April 30 at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. Skinner was one of just 60 student poster projects selected from 360 applicants. She was the only student chosen from North Dakota.

“Not only do you have to complete really significant research, which Tess did, but you have to gain experience in presenting,” said Minot State professor Mikhail Bobylev. “It’s really two merits, scientific and how well you present. She gained a lot of experience this year presenting and is confident now to really tell her story.”

Along with personal growth and confidence in her abilities, Skinner was able to utilize a lineage of individuals who have earned the right to present at Posters on the Hill. She became the eighth individual from Bobylev’s lab at Minot State in the past 10 years to be chosen for the prestigious event, including the second straight year as Jordan Torgunrud presented in 2018.

It was a friendship with Torgunrud that eventually convinced Skinner she should apply.

“Everyone in the department is super supportive and we really build off each other,” she said. “I actually became interested when Jordan applied and was accepted. That got me thinking this is something I could do. I talked to Jordan about it and her experience and I visited with Kowan (Minot State academic coach and former Posters on the Hill selection Kowan O’Keefe) and all he could say were great things. That also boosted my confidence.”

Bobylev feels Skinner fits right into the tradition.

“I don’t want to compare any of the group, they are all special in what they did and were all outstanding. She was able to continue that tradition,” he said. “They were all being judged at events like the regional event in Moorhead (Minnesota) and other events with posters or in the oral presentation categories, and each of them succeeded with good competition. One of them from each of their groups have to rise above the rest to be selected to Posters on the Hill, they are all great in the lab, but someone usually goes above and beyond.”

For Skinner, going above and beyond meant about three-and-a-half years in the lab.

“You get out of it what you put in,” she said. “If you have to come in extra, you would. I did 16 reactions for my final project. A lot of it comes down to time management.”

Which became an even greater issue for Skinner during her final year as she both had unexpected surgery and became pregnant with her first child.

“I think that has been one of the biggest things that separated Tess from others, she has somehow been able to balance everything really well,” Bobylev said. “She balanced her pregnancy with school, six meetings, and presented an excellent paper. She had great support from her husband who was able to go to all her meetings during that time, he has been very helpful.”

“It has been overwhelming at times,” Skinner said of her final year. “But I want to do everything I can to make a better life for my husband and baby. It has been my focus point, the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a balancing act for sure.”

Her poster was titled: Novel Method of Synthesis of Benzylamine Fungicides, and the study essentially developed a new method of rapid synthesis of new compounds with antifungal activities and for the large-scale distribution. Skinner believes her work could eventually have wide-spread agricultural benefits.

The presentation of her poster at the event is the final stage during the trip to the nation’s capital, both Skinner and Bobylev are quick to point out there are other aspects of the trip that are nearly as important.

“First, the poster session itself No. 1,” Bobylev said. “But there are a series of high-end meetings — meeting with officials of the funding agencies who fund the research itself, meeting with our congressional delegation to help convey the importance of federal funding, and meeting with the American Chemical Society administrators. In those lines, we fulfilled our goal. We met with the president of the American Chemical Society at this event like we were able to at the national ACS meeting and she was very excited to talk to Tess about her work.”

The duo met with Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) and members of his staff and the staffs of both Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) during the morning. While Cramer was not in Washington during Posters on the Hill, Armstrong made a trip to the event to meet with Skinner during the session itself.

Those meetings made a lasting impression on Skinner.

“Overall this trip was fantastic, I was making plans to return on the plane ride home,” she said. “Sen. Cramer’s staff were great, they really listened about the undergraduate research we are doing and one of the staffers took us on a tour of the Capitol. I love history, so this was really nice. We met with Sen. Hoeven and visited with him about my presentation and while we weren’t able to meet with Rep. Armstrong, he came to the event. He wanted to know all about my research. The poster session was probably the best presentation setting I’ve been in.”

She also hopes her hands-on experience in the lab will eventually lead to a position working in a full-scale lab, possibly moving up at Trinity Health in Minot where she is currently employed at the walk-in clinic.

“I really want to get involved in testing blood and tissue samples,” she said. “I’m hoping to get an internship or something like that, transition into the lab at Trinity. I’ve really enjoyed working there at the clinic. From there, I would like to eventually continue my education in organic synthesis at grad school.”

About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 06/10/19   

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