Senior faces her fears, finds science

Aug. 4, 2014

Image of Christina Burkhart holding a firefly on her thumb.

Christina Burkhart, UW-L senior, pictured with one of her research subjects — a firefly.

UW-L Senior Christina Burkhart can attest that life is a lot like scientific research. It doesn’t always go as planned.

Burkhart, a self-proclaimed arachnophobe, studies jumping spiders’ courtship in a small corner of Cowley Hall. It’s research she arrived at after she couldn’t collect enough fireflies to assess their flashing and flight. When one project doesn’t work out, Burkhart is quick to come up with another.

“I just think about stuff that interests me — nobody knows about everything,” she says. “I’ve had to climb over so many walls and adapt my studies.”

The 24-year-old exercises that same resilience in life.

Burkhart and her husband had their first child, a baby boy, in March 2009. Later that fall, she started the criminal justice program at Western Technical College in La Crosse. But, as a new mom, she was beginning to question her career choice in a profession that would mean an unpredictable life expectancy.

Burkhart said children weren’t the only thing that made her question her career. That same fall she was experiencing strong allergy symptoms that grew worse. Eventually, her nose ran so much she had trouble breathing and all the molars on one side of her mouth were so sore that she couldn’t chew. Burkhart finally gave in and visited the doctor.

When antibiotics didn’t work, doctors took a look inside Burkhart’s head. She recalls sitting in the medical office, looking at the computer monitor. The doctor pointed out a golf ball-sized image directly behind her nasal cavity, explaining that it wasn’t supposed to be there.

Burkhart recalls the conversation later that evening with her mother.

UW-L Senior Christina Burkhart earned a summer research grant through WiscAMP. She presented her research on fireflies and spiders at the College of Science and Health Summer Celebration of Undergraduate Research poster session Thursday, July 31, in Port O’Call, Cartwright Center.

UW-L Senior Christina Burkhart earned a summer research grant through WiscAMP. She presented her research on fireflies and spiders at the College of Science and Health Summer Celebration of Undergraduate Research poster session Thursday, July 31, in Port O’Call, Cartwright Center.

“When I told her ‘I have a tumor in my face’ — she thought I was joking,” recalls Burkhart. “Two days after, it really hit me. I cried for the next two weeks.”

Burkhart was presented a host of options to remove the tumor, including creating an incision directly above her front teeth or removing most of her hard palate. Luckily, doctors found a less invasive route and successfully removed Burkhart’s in tumor March 2010 via her nose. Although it was non-cancerous, Burkhart said the battle changed her perspective on life.

“Kids will do that — and tumors will do that too,” she notes.

Burkhart determined she wanted to live more fully. She started exercising regularly, eating healthy and listening more closely to her body. She started listening to her dreams too. She didn’t want a career she “half-way liked;” she wanted something she would love.

She graduated in May 2011 from Western Technical College and transferred to UW-L. She intended to complete a degree in Spanish, which would give her enough credits to work for the Department of Natural Resources.

She needed a “space filler” to meet one of her general education requirements and signed up for biology. Within the first week of school, Burkhart wondered why she had delayed taking the course. Studying biology reminded her of her childhood curiosity about nature and animals.

“There is so much left unknown. You can turn over a rock and another rock and continue to come up with question upon question,” she says.

“Chrissy is always turning over rocks,” says Biology Assistant Professor Eric Snively, one of her advisers.

Burkhart wields two desirable characteristics of a scientist: curiosity and the willingness to test and tinker, says her other adviser, Barrett Klein, an assistant professor of Biology. If she spots an organism, Burkhart will rapidly transition from posing questions to testing her questions in light of others’ past research, he says.

In her lab, she has tubes filled with spiders. She studies how their size, color, movements and dancing might help them find a mate. Her fear of them is one of the main reasons she is working with them.

“I think it’s healthy to face your fears — to learn why you are afraid,” she says. “Constantly worrying about where you go because of something like a spider, puts limits on your life.”

Burkhart intends to complete her undergraduate degree in biology in May 2015 and apply to the master’s biology program at UW-L for fall 2015. She now has two children and looks to have a third right before she starts her master’s.

One day she’d like to earn a doctoral degree. She anticipates more obstacles on that path such as a potentially long daily commute to Madison and caring for her children while in a rigorous program. But she plans to keep on looking for ways around those obstacles.

“I guess I’d call it determination in the face of failure. I think I had that quality before, but I think I have it more now,” she says. “What I see more often than not is people complaining that the world isn’t fair instead of finding a way to fix it. Why not start small — with yourself.”