Skip to main content
Hartford Student Researches Gene Expression & Substance Addiction
Email share
Alyssa Bursott

Last year Alyssa Bursott, then a junior at West Central High School in Hartford, SD, was awarded the Emperor Science Award. Sponsored in part by PBS LearningMedia, the award provides opportunities for 10th and 11th graders to work alongside a university-level mentoring scientist to explore careers in science and become part of the next generation of cancer researchers.

Alyssa lost her father to cancer and that experience looms large in her desire to become a neuroscientist. (See "Hartford, SD Student Awarded Opportunity to Study Cancer Research.")

SDPB, PBS LearningMedia, and Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) are again calling for applications for the second year of The Emperor Science Award program in South Dakota. Entry is open to 10th and 11th grade students in South Dakota who have a strong scientific interest, especially in cancer research and care. Students from all socio-economic backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Entries will be accepted now through March 17, 2017, 11:59 pm ET. at The Emperor Science Award website.

SDPB followed up with Alyssa about her experience resulting from winning the Emperor Science Award. Finances prevented Alyssa from job-shadowing her mentor, Dr. Angela Ozburn a behavioral neuroscience researcher at the Portland, Oregon VA Health Care System, but Alyssa and Dr. Ozburn made it work virtually.

SDPB: What did your research entail?

Alyssa Bursott: "I researched the topics of circadian rhythms and alcohol use disorder and how AUDs affect circadian rhythms.

SDPB: What does that entail? Can you put it in “laypeople” terms?

Essentially, certain genes control your circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycle that controls sleep/wake patterns and metabolism. Studies have shown that certain mutations of these genes are associated with alcohol abuse. Also, other studies have shown that chronic alcohol abuse affects circadian rhythms by throwing off the cycle, so to speak.

Since I was unable to work in a lab, I worked on a research paper regarding the topic. Dr. Ozburn and I felt that this would be the most beneficial way to spend my time because of the distance between us. I think this was a great choice because I learned what a research paper entails, and I learned a great deal about the topic. For the most part, I spent my time reading medical journals about the topics. I would then use the information I learned to piece together my paper.

​We started in early January of 2016, and I was pretty busy at that time. Most of my project took place from April through June, but we were in contact often throughout the beginning of school this year. Dr. Ozburn has become my go-to person on anything career or college related. I emailed her a lot, and we were also able to use Google Hangouts to chat in a Skype-like setting. Honestly, it was hard to get used to, but the communication was still very beneficial."

SDPB: What was the experience like? What do you feel like you learned?

AB: "It was a unique experience, and I didn't like it at first. I didn't like not being able to work with Dr. Ozburn in person, but I think I got way more out of the experience by being uncomfortable. I learned how to communicate via email. Often times it's very hard to explain thoughts in a detailed message, but that was exactly what I learned to do. Obviously I learned how to research, but I learned a lot about other important work aspects, too: diligence, communication, work ethic, organization, and perseverance. There were times where I wanted to give up on the project because I didn't understand what I was doing, but I learned from that. I learned to push forward, and I got the result that I wanted. I wouldn't have been successful without Dr. Ozburn keeping me in line."

SDPB: How was the experience different from learning science in high school? Was it more real world?

AB: "This application of science in the real world allowed me to fully understand what I was talking about. I comprehend the subjects better. With high school coursework, even when I don't understand what I'm doing, I can still answer things correctly. With my research, I HAD to understand every aspect of what I was talking about.

Honestly, there isn't a single thing I can think of that was not amazing. Dr. Ozburn is the best mentor I have ever had. She was so patient with me in the beginning. I was pretty bull-headed with my ideas when I started, but Dr. Ozburn managed to retrain my way of thinking. She broadened my perspective on not just the medical research community, but also in my everyday life. Another thing I really appreciated was her commitment to her job. I have always been a driven person, but she really set the bar high for me. I think that teaching me how to be a professional while treating me with kindness and respect was the most important, and Dr. Ozburn accomplished this flawlessly."

SDPB: How has the Emperor Science Award impacted you in other ways?

AB: "This award blessed me with the opportunity to become exposed to medical research. As a result of this exposure, I have been able to earn an internship position at Sanford Research Center in Sioux Falls for this semester. Last semester, I was an intern at Avera McKennan Hospital. On the academic side of things, I was able to apply for numerous honors programs for college, some of which could lead to research opportunities in college. These opportunities are amazing because they involve everything that I’ve worked to achieve, and my experiences from the award have helped me tremendously. The exposure came from the project itself. Also, because I had the opportunity to participate in the award, I was able to get into a research internship at Sanford. I probably wouldn't have been able to do this without my experience with the Emperor Science Award."

SDPB: What are you currently interested in, science-wise? Do you still want to be a neuroscientist?

AB: "Currently, I plan to become either a surgeon or a forensic pathologist. I would love to do further research, especially in neuroscience, but I do not plan on making that my career."

SDPB: Have you solidified plans for college yet?

AB: "I have. I will be attending Creighton University in Omaha to major in Neuroscience and Pre-Medical Studies. After that, I hope to be accepted into Creighton’s medical school and continue my education."

SDPB: Would you encourage other South Dakota high school students to apply for the Emperor Science Award?

AB: "I would encourage others to apply for this award because the opportunity is worth taking advantage of. Never in a million years did I plan on winning an award that would allow me to pursue my dreams, but it happened. Many people my age think that they are not good enough to earn great things. That is not true. If students seek out the opportunities that are knocking on their door, they will be successful beyond their wildest dreams."

Image - bursott with dad.jpg

SDPB: What more would you like to tell us about this experience?

AB: "I would like to thank my mom for helping me navigate the tricky paths involved with making college and career decisions. She is always there for me, and she has allowed me to make my own decisions. I would not be the person I am without her guidance. I would also like to thank my teachers and my friends who have encouraged me to follow my dreams. Finally, I owe my dad a great deal. His death could have destroyed me, but it built me into a person that I am proud to be."

Emperor Science Award
South Dakota students, teachers, guidance counselors, administrators and parents can visit The Emperor Science Award website ( to learn more about the program and to apply. The webpage contains an overview of the program and associated resources for students and educators. To enter, students will be asked to complete an application and submit a 750 maximum word essay on the following topic:

“Cancer has been referred to as ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’ and millions of people around the world are looking for a cure. In America, more than 1,600 people die each day. Tell us why scientific research is so important in helping to find a cure for cancer. And if you could be a scientific researcher, what would you study and why?”

Essays will be judged on sincerity, creativity, clarity and persuasiveness.

Winning students will be connected with science mentors from a host of high-profile medical research centers, including more than 100 SU2C-affiliated institutions, universities and industry leaders in cancer diagnosis and treatment.