October 30, 2018

Claire Henson: Putting Science to Work

By Emma Morris ('19)

In the Spring of 2018, while most seniors were just hanging on until graduation, Claire Henson (Biology, ‘18) was busy pairing a rigorous course load with a research internship in a professional lab setting. 

An extraordinary College of Arts & Sciences student, Henson augmented her classroom learning and research opportunities at GU with two prestigious internship opportunities in the healthcare field: the Gonzaga Biomedical Internship (GBI) and the Inland Northwest Blood Center (INBC) internship. Each opportunity provided its own unique set of takeaways that could never have been achieved through classroom instruction alone.

Funded by a grant from the Blood Center Foundation of the Inland Northwest, interns at the INBC lab focused on learning about and performing the science behind matching organs for transplant. They learned to identify the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) profile of the donor organ, which determines whether recipients’ bodies will recognize the organ as foreign and reject it based on the antibodies they already have in their blood. They also learned how to perform crossmatching tests on patient samples to confirm whether the organ was safe to transplant to specific recipients before giving the final go-ahead.

Henson describes a typical day as following a simple pattern: learn the theory, put the theory into practice. She lauds this approach as particularly helpful because HLA lab director Dr. Ellen Klohe (’74) provided comprehensive explanations about “the why.” “Dr. Klohe would sit down with my fellow intern [Megan Saathoff] and me and review the immunological theories and principles that were the basis of the tests we would learn to perform,” Henson recalls. “After we learned the theory, we would work with a technologist in the lab to perform the test for the first time, and then eventually run our own version of the procedure, checking our work against that of the clinical laboratory scientists [who ran the same procedure].” For Henson, the real value came in the interpretation that followed, which challenged interns to come to their own conclusions about the meaning of the test results.

Perhaps one of the most meaningful moments of Henson’s INBC experience, however, was sitting in on a transplant committee meeting. “I was able to see how much attention and expertise were applied to the health and wellbeing of each patient,” Henson recalls. “It also impressed upon me that there are so many positions, some of which I didn’t know existed, where you can have a real and lasting impact on patients.” The immersive nature of this experience helped connect the laboratory research Henson was performing in her internship with real patient cases.

Claire Henson testing her fellow intern Erin Hayes' reflexes.
While she worked away in the lab setting at INBC, Henson learned that she had also earned a spot in the summer Gonzaga Biomedical Internship program, where she would immerse herself in the world of medicine at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. No two days were alike, so her first step through those hospital doors could lead her anywhere. “My day-to-day activities could vary widely,” Henson recalls. “Some days I worked on my research project in the office where I was placed, the Gossman Center for Advanced Healthcare Simulation. On others I traveled with the team to various ORs, emergency departments, and clinics to watch or help them run simulations and teach classes intended to improve clinical outcomes, practice, and caregiver confidence by introducing skills to deal with specific medical emergencies.” While her internship involved almost 100 valuable hours of physician shadowing, Henson was not merely a passive observer; under the guidance of distinguished mentors using top-of-the-line simulation technology, she carried out meaningful research of her own.

Henson’s research focused on the impacts of healthcare providers participating in simulations of postpartum hemorrhage, with an emphasis on the effects of this emergency on caregiver confidence. “The Gossman team had recently completed a three-year initiative enacting postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) simulations in 29 different labor and delivery units across the northwest,” Henson explains. “PPH is a low volume but high-risk emergency, and it is important that staff are up to date with best practice concerning how to care for PPH patients.”

The Gossman Center for Advanced Healthcare Simulation provides a world class platform to which very few undergraduates have access. The simulation opportunities represented an array of scenarios including how to treat patients with severe sepsis, handling a fire in the OR during surgery, and performing neonatal resuscitation. Henson’s own research was meaningful because her results could influence how caregivers are prepared to handle such emergencies in real life.

Perhaps one of Claire’s greatest takeaways was the relationship she formed with Dr. Terry Mayberg (’79), who went beyond the role of GBI program director to make the extra effort to connect with students like Henson outside of the confines of the program. “She is always willing to have a coffee and chat about life,” Henson fondly describes, “and I know I can go to her with professional or personal problems.” The GBI internship is demanding, so staff support is invaluable to the interns as they take on their research endeavors. Dr. Mayberg extended her support to Henson beyond the internship to connect her with colleagues in the Seattle area who could serve as contacts as she pursues a future in science.

Both internships challenged Henson to perform diligent, accurate work and to employ creative problem-solving skills when problems arose. She credits her GU liberal arts education for setting her up for success, particularly the critical thinking skills she gained through the core curriculum, which armed her with the tools to face challenges head on. She reflects that the requirements of both her internships “would have been much more difficult if not for all the English, communication, and philosophy courses I took at Gonzaga.”

Henson’s year-long research endeavor in 2017 under Bill Ettinger, Ph.D., also prepped her for the rigors. With the help of a Ledgerwood Scholarship, she and Ettinger focused on making antimicrobials and sporicidals developed by local biomedical company Hyprotek more effective so that they can eventually be used in sanitizer solutions by medical professionals. Henson describes her microbiology research as “one of the Gonzaga experiences [she] will cherish the most” because of the microbiology, presentation, and data analysis skills she developed and the relationship she formed with Dr. Ettinger, who proved to be a valuable mentor and friend and allowed students like Henson a level of independence in their research while offering meaningful career advice.

Not only have each of these opportunities cemented Henson’s laboratory skills, but they also provided her much welcome career perspective as she transitions from undergraduate study to the working world. “Working at the INBC HLA typing lab gave me a sense of how the knowledge I had gained through the biology program at Gonzaga could actually be applied in a ‘real life’ patient-care facility,” Henson explains. The internship opened her up to the possibility of many different careers in the field of biology besides being a doctor, such as becoming a laboratory technologist.

Henson is currently working as a research associate at Swedish Hospital in the Swedish Cancer Institute, but she is unsure where exactly she wants to land because it is difficult to define a single dream job. She does, however, know the general path she wants to take. “I want a job where I can make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others, one where I will be challenged to solve problems in medicine and healthcare in new ways, and one that helps me grow as a person,” she says.

One thing is for certain as she enters the real world post-college: she wants to provide the same guidance and expertise to other students that she received throughout her internship experiences by following in the footsteps of Dr. Klohe and Dr. Mayberg, who gave back to the Gonzaga community by helping to guide the next generation of scientists.