Brenda Smithhisler: Seeing Life in a Microscope

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Exploring the genetic bases of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's is the intended research focus of Brenda Smithhisler, '16.

Brenda Smithhisler, '16Brenda Smithhisler always knew she’d end up working in the sciences. She grew up exploring ant hills at recess and watching medical dramas on television. “I think I’m just so fascinated by the little things that when I look through a microscope I don’t just see an image, I see life,” she said.

The 22-year-old graduates this month with a degree in environmental science. She plans to take a year off from higher education before applying to graduate schools. In the meantime, Smithhisler will continue working in her field. She’s currently employed with the Becker Lab on campus and hopes to get an internship with the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

Smithhisler has a specific research focus. She wants to explore the genetic components of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. “It wasn’t until my grandmother passed away from Parkinson’s and I saw how much it affected her that I got motivated to try and figure it out,” she said.

Smithhisler has had ample opportunity to explore while at UW Tacoma. In addition to the field work she did with Dr. Bonnie Becker, Smithhisler also studied abroad in Costa Rica. The experience changed her perspective. “We went out to some coffee fields and there were teenagers picking the coffee beans,” she said. “We don’t see the process here in the United States; everything is just there for us.”

Life as a self-described “nerd” can be difficult. Smithhisler didn’t have that problem. She was given room to be herself and found a home among like minds. “Seeing other people’s passions, you just kind of absorb a little bit of that,” she said. “You dip your toes in their pool and go along for the ride and they pull you up.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / June 9, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or