"It was kind of overwhelming," said Zurek, who is in her third year of pursuing a doctorate in immunology and infectious diseases. "I was taking my citizenship exam and going through a swearing-in ceremony on Friday, and on (the following) Tuesday I was walking around the Capitol going to meetings with senators and house representatives."
The native of Poland took time out to exercise her newly earned citizenship as part of a American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) program that brought 20 students and post-doctoral researchers from across the country to Washington in mid September to advocate for the preservation of funding that helps support basic scientific research in the biomedical field.
The ASBMB holds its annual Fall Hill Day so that the young scientists doing basic research can highlight the impacts of the funding that keeps the work going. When adjusted for inflation, NIH's funding has been declining since 2004, according to ASBMB.
Beyond the fact that scientific research leads to life-saving medical and public health advances, Zurek said it boils down to an economic argument. For every dollar the National Institutes of Health spends on academic research into questions of public health and national security, the public sees more than double a return, according to ASBMB.
Jovanka Voyich-Kane, assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, said the research Zurek is working on at MSU is a prime example of how funding for primary science ripples through the economy.
"And I think it's important for scientists to speak up about how much NIH funding benefits the communities in which they work," Voyich-Kane said. "If it wasn't for NIH funding Oliwia wouldn't be able to pursue her Ph.D. in my lab."
Working with Voyich-Kane, Zurek studies the ways in which drug-resistant bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, evade the immune responses of their host. MRSA is a pathogen of major medical concern that can cause infections ranging from mild skin abscesses to necrotizing pneumonia and sepsis in both healthy people and those with potentially weakened immune systems.
Zurek said her findings could have major implications for developing effective treatments against MRSA infections.
For Zurek, whose parents are still living in her adopted hometown of Mundelein, Ill., becoming a citizen completed a journey that started when she landed in the United States 10 years ago as a high school freshman with little to no comprehension of English.
To celebrate her citizenship, Zurek proudly wears an American flag lapel pin, sent to her as a gift by Barb Tsutsumi, the high school teacher who taught her English. Zurek said she has remained close to Tsutsumi even after she moved on from her English as a Second Language class.
"She's been so supportive of me all the way through high school, college and beyond," Zurek said. "She actually paid the $700 fee to apply for citizenship."
Tsutsumi said Zurek, who showed up in her class days after immigrating, was an inspiration from the start. Four years later, Zurek moved on to Knox College.
"She was top graduate in her high school class," Tsutsumi said. "Imagine coming to high school and the classes aren't in your native language. She never looked at it as an obstacle. It was something that motivated her."
Given that she had already earned her green card, graduated college and received a National Institutes of Health grant to pursue her doctorate, Zurek said some people wondered why she would be motivated to become a naturalized citizen.
"Because I've been able to take advantage of all these opportunities, it's just a no-brainer that I would become a citizen," Zurek said. "I owe it to this country to give something back, and to do that as a citizen is a responsibility I don't take lightly."
The most exciting thing, she added, was the feeling that anything could be possible.
"I feel really good," Zurek said. "And I know it's just the beginning."
Contact: Sepp Jannotta, firstname.lastname@example.org, (406) 994-7371.