Carnegie Mellon University
October 30, 2023

Biophysics Junior Lauryn McKenna Tracks Time for Balance

By Kathryn Bell

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Carnegie Mellon University student-athlete Lauryn McKenna races through full days in class, research in the lab and time on the track.

McKenna, a junior studying biophysics, is a member of the women's cross country and track and field team. A runner since seventh grade, the sport is an integral part of her life.

"It's a great outlet for me to go outside and work hard. It's mentally beneficial for me and keeps me structured in my day-to-day life," she said. Team members create a large support system for each other. "The team is focused on helping others and it has helped me grow skills on not just helping myself but helping other people grow."

The bond is something McKenna said she has appreciated through college. Now a team leader, she guides team warmups and cool downs, encourages people during workouts and stretches and is there for her teammates.

"Part of being a leader is being someone who is easy to talk to and someone who encourages you while also struggling herself," McKenna said.

The Carnegie Mellon women's cross country team started the season ranked 28th in the nation by the U.S Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. She said she wants to be a strong component in getting the team to the Division III National Championships at Dickson College on Nov. 18.

A pre-med student and part of the Health Professions Program, Mckenna started as a neuroscience major and switched to biophysics after a conversation with her first-year physics professor and mentor Stephen Garoff, now emeritus professor of physics.

"I distinctly remember how impressed I was with Lauryn's attitude," Garoff said of her in class. "She had what might be called grit- she would not be deterred even when things were hard.  It was easy to see she had what it takes to succeed in whatever she chooses to do."

Through Garoff's mentorship, McKenna applied for a NASA summer internship program that would give her a grant to conduct research with her Carnegie Mellon professor. She joined the lab of Fanwei Si, assistant professor of physics and biomedical engineering, in June 2022.

"We are quantifying protein localization in E. coli cells," she said. E. coli cells contain many proteins with unknown functions. McKenna vertically examines proteins in four different strains she genetically engineered to create a ratio gene difference for a computer to analyze and identify the potential of protein's functions.

Si mentors McKenna on the project, which she aims to complete at the end of this academic year.

"What brought Lauryn this far in research, I think, is being fearless and persistent, which can be well attributed to her passion for athletics," Si said. "She will be an excellent long-distance runner both on the track, on the cross-country terrain, and on her path toward the career goals she pursues."

McKenna is part of Medical Global Brigades on campus, a group that travels to developing nations to set up medical clinics and provide healthcare over spring break.

McKenna said balancing all her commitments can be a struggle. At last year's cross country nationals she took a midterm in a hotel room the night before her race. She said traveling can be an emotional experience because there isn't time to rejuvenate from the previous week before Monday morning classes.

"It's tough to balance, but I'm grateful for it and the tools I learned to be successful and also ask for help when I'm in need," she said.

Being mindful of her priorities has taught her to be present and take each thing as it comes, she said. She added that she learned to focus on the task at hand, not worry about what she has left to do and fully commit to the moment. Three years in, her Carnegie Mellon experience has been rewarding.

"My accomplishments are not my own doing. I received a lot of mentorship and support from my peers, coaches and teachers who have helped me get where I am," she said.

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