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2019 alumna epitomized perseverance

  • Cambridge's Katie Lipsius found her stride at UMES

    Wednesday, May 29, 2019
    Dr. Heidi M. Anderson with 2019 alumna Katie Lipsius

    Intrepid Katie Lipsius walked away from her brief time as a University of Maryland Eastern Shore student with an impressive list of credentials. 

    The Cambridge, Md. native graduated May 24 with highest honors, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. 

    A prestigious two-year fellowship awaits her at the National Institutes of Health.  Her goal is parlaying that opportunity into a career as a physician and medical researcher. 

    As an undergraduate, Lipsius relished working in three different research labs supervised by Dr. Victoria Volkis, Dr. Dia-Eldin Elnaiem and Dr. Tracy Bell, often logging 8-to-10-hour days sandwiched around her class schedule. 

    “Rarely have I had the opportunity to interact with a student as enthusiastic and determined to succeed as Katie,” Bell said. 

    In April, Lipsius was named the School of Agriculture and Natural Sciences' top student.  She also is the 2019 winner of the Richard Bernstein award, a $5,000 cash prize named in honor of a local entrepreneur-philanthropist that recognizes a deserving UMES math or science student. 

    If those achievements aren't enough, the graduation-day audience surely took inspiration from watching Lipsius cross the stage to accept her degree from Dr. Heidi M. Anderson. 

    Born 24 years ago with cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder with a range of symptoms that affect movement, muscle tone and posture, Lipsius credits surgeons at Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children with restoring her ability to walk. 

    “They gave me the opportunity to be who I am today,” she said. “I'm one of the lucky ones.” 

    Lipsius' journey to be the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree has been understandably challenging.

    She has endured five orthopedic surgeries and acknowledges pain is a constant companion.  “Power through” is a favorite expression, often delivered matter-of-factly with a smile. 

    “I have a high tolerance for pain,” Lipsius said. “I'm used to it.” 

    Her ankles and hips are susceptible to dislocation. 

    Few knew that Lipsius “powered through” a hip dislocation in October 2017 as she stepped to a microphone to deliver remarks during a University System of Maryland governing board meeting at UMES. 

    “She kept a smile on her face the entire time,” said Veronique Diriker, a former UMES administrator who specializes in fund-raising. 

    Diriker recruited Lipsius to speak because she was “articulate (using no notes), relatable - a local student … who wants to help people by working in health, humorous and kind - utterly professional and obviously extremely bright.” 

    After graduating from Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, Lipsius headed to Fayetteville, N.C. to study at Methodist College, but it wasn't a good fit for someone unsure of a career path.  She then tried the University of Maryland, but the sprawling College Park campus with its undulating terrain proved too physically demanding. 

    Discouraged by those aborted college choices, Lipsius said she found herself depressed and angry.  She said she snapped out of it by forcing herself to take a long-view look at careers where her disability would not impede success. 

    Lipsius also drew on her parents' “don't live paycheck-to-paycheck” advice.  “They wanted good things for me,” she said. “I knew I needed to do something academically.” 

    After a year off, she enrolled in Chesapeake Community College, taking classes at its satellite location in her hometown as well as at the main campus 40 minutes away in Wye Mills. 

    Lipsius, who has an able-bodied twin sister, was not physically ready to secure a driver's license until age 21, so her grandfather drove her to class every day. 

    She considered pre-nursing, but settled on environmental science.  She also discovered she enjoyed tutoring fellow students - and was good at it. 

    With her associate's degree in hand, Lipsius looked to continue her studies at a four-year college that offered a science curriculum that could provide a pathway to a medical career.  Her next school also had to be pedestrian friendly. 

    UMES proved ideal on both fronts, and she made the most of the past two years.  As a commuter student, Lipsius eschewed handicapped parking because “there are people who need (the spaces) way more than I do.” 

    She was accepted into the Richard A. Henson Honors Program, where her “capstone” (senior-year) project was reporting on research into re-purposing chitin, a fibrous substance commonly found in the exoskeletons of crabs and shrimp, into greenhouse gas filters. 

    “I see it for the win-win potential - recycling (food) waste and reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” she said. 

    In Bell's biology lab, where the focus is on the study of diabetic traits in small tropical fish, Lipsius mastered “the (micro) surgical technique of excising various tissues from zebrafish,” Bell said.  “Katie was often the 'go-to' person when any of us needed tissues for analysis.” 

    Volkis, a chemist, calls Lipsius “one of the most talented and hard-working students I have ever met, and I am honored and proud of being her mentor.” 

    “She has presented at more national meetings than you can count,” Volkis said, “and was awarded some very prestigious travel and excellence awards, including (an) American Chemical Society award for achievements in organic chemistry.” 

    Volkis also admires Lipsius' dedication to the Nause-Waiwash band of Native Americans indigenous to the Delmarva Peninsula.  Lipsius traces her family's roots in the 300-member tribe back seven generations.  “It kind of grounds me,” she said. 

    She also found time to serve as a docent at the Salisbury Zoo. 

    At the National Institutes of Health, Lipsius will work in the stem cell and neuro-vascular biology lab of Dr. Yoh-suke Mukouyama.  If she successfully completes the fellowship, she'll be in an advantageous position to attend medical school, where she's hoping to become a doctor and earn a Ph.D. in medical research. 

    As a physician, she envisions being a hands-on clinician.  And as a classically trained researcher, she can pursue the “why” and “how” of illnesses and diseases, especially the neurological variety. 

    “It doesn't take much to be extraordinary,” Lipsius said. “Don't be extraordinary just for others. Be extraordinary for yourself. The rest will follow.”