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MSU Profiles

The science of discovery

Heidi Super spends a lot of her time with chromosomes. And she loves it.

Super, a biology professor, admits that she is in her element when it comes to working in a lab.

“I never get tired of looking through a microscope,” Super said. “I like taking things apart scientifically.”

Since the 10th grade, Super was sold on biology as a career path. She completed her undergraduate studies at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., and worked at the Oakridge National Lab in Tennessee before enrolling in graduate school at the University of Chicago. It was there that Super was mentored by world renowned geneticist Janet Rowley who was the first scientist to identify a chromosomal mutation in leukemia cancer cells.  This groundbreaking research would pave the way for the development of drugs used to treat leukemia.

Leukemia was the main focus of Super’s research at the University of Chicago. While there, her research group identified another chromosome abnormality in a type of leukemia that is prevalent in children.

“We had narrowed the region of what we knew had to be a critical leukemia causing gene on chromosome 11,” said Super.

The group had discovered what is now known as the Mixed Lineage Leukemia gene.

While much of Super’s research required a strict attention to detail, she never lost sight of the big picture.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce cancer and make better drugs to give people a better way of life,” she said.

Super then decided to add another component to her career trajectory, this time shifting her attention to developing future scientists.

“I didn’t know I would enjoy teaching as much as I did,” said Super reflecting on her decision to join the faculty at Minot State in 1999.

Super’s approach to teaching is twofold. Not only does she teach a full course load but also continues to conduct research in the lab with the assistance of her students. Students have a chance to get hands-on experience and present their findings at conferences around the country including the American Association for Cancer Research in Chicago.

“I’ve been mostly involved with looking at common chemotherapy treatments,” Super said.

Last spring, Super took a sabbatical to study genome and exome sequencing with a lab in New Zealand. The students she worked with in New Zealand will be presenting a paper on their findings at a conference in Atlanta next summer.

“Sequencing allows you to look at the four letters of DNA in linear order and then see if there is a mutation compared to the original DNA,” said Super. “We were looking for new DNA mutations linked to the progression of leukemia.”  

Always the researcher, Super equally appreciates the positives of teaching, saying, “It balances out the long wait between discoveries and poster presentations.”

Super’s enthusiasm for her field of study is palpable when she talks about her research. It is best summarized by someone that once said, “I’ve never regretted being in science and being in research. The exhilaration that one gets in making new discoveries is beyond description.”

That someone was Super’s late mentor, Janet Rowley.