Homegrown Scientist

March 26, 2018
Amanda Nagy
Naviya Schuster-Little with an alligator
Naviya Schuster-Little '17 holds a baby alligator at Pittcon, the largest conference for analytical chemistry, in March. Photo credit: Courtesy of Naviya Schuster-Little

Under the mentorship of Associate Professor Rebecca Whelan, Oberlin native Naviya Schuster-Little ’17 finds her footing as a research scientist. 


Being in the presence of a Nobel laureate, a baby alligator, and like-minded researchers helped solidify Naviya Schuster-Little’s decision to apply to graduate school over medical school.

Schuster-Little is currently a lab technician in the DNA Sequencing Core at the University of Michigan, where she works on the Genes for Good study. The project collects genetic and health information from volunteer participants that will be used to provide biological insight into the causes of common diseases. She works in a group that isolates DNA from saliva samples.

Though she was on the premed track at Oberlin, Schuster-Little is considering graduate programs in bioanalytical chemistry or a field that combines aspects of chemistry and biology.

In March, Schuster-Little ’17 attended the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon), the world's largest conference and exposition devoted to measurement science, held this year in Orlando, Florida. She was joined by Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Rebecca Whelan and fellow student researcher Kepler Mears ’17. Schuster-Little worked a year and two summers in Whelan’s lab on a project to develop an alternative detection method for ovarian cancer.

At Pittcon, she presented on the research she conducted with Whelan through August 2017. The project involved selecting aptamers—short pieces of single-stranded DNA or RNA—that bind to ovarian cancer biomarkers. The selection process is referred to as SELEX (systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment) and consists of several steps. Schuster-Little worked on optimizing one of those steps, called polymerase chain reaction.

“Last summer I was able to combine the different steps of SELEX that other students in the lab had been working on to perform aptamer selection, and that was really exciting,” Schuster-Little says. “At Pittcon, I presented on our aptamer selection methods and what we hope to do in the future.”

A biochemistry major, Schuster-Little says she enjoyed hearing about different analytical techniques and new research in the field. “I really miss doing research, so this was a nice opportunity to be challenged and learn a bunch of new things. For a while I was debating if I wanted to go to medical school or grad school, and this experience along with others helped me figure out that grad school is the direction I want to go.”

The highlight of the conference was meeting and listening to a talk by Stefan W. Hell, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014. The three also had an opportunity to get up close and personal with a baby alligator and ride the Eye of Orlando ferris wheel.

Schuster-Little has presented at past conferences, including the Midwestern Universities Analytical Chemistry Conference in October 2017 and the Greater Cleveland American Chemical Society's Meeting-in-Miniature in March 2017, both with Whelan.  

To develop her passion for science, Schuster-Little was able to look no farther than her hometown. She was raised in the city of Oberlin and graduated from Oberlin High School in 2013. “I like to joke that I’m Obie squared!”


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