The Faces of Health Science Across America

Six AU alumni share their passion for improving the well-being of their communities.

Health care is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the world. The job opportunities are plentiful. And so are the chances to improve lives.

Aurora University has been preparing students for careers in the health sciences field for decades, arming students with rigorous training while also cultivating their desire to make their community a better place.

Whether it is taking the time to explain to a patient how COVID-19 spreads, educating the public about wildlife conservation, keeping a professional baseball player healthy enough to sustain his career, taking part in research that is advancing pediatric brain cancer treatments, serving as a Latina role model for women aspiring to STEM careers, or working on the development of cutting-edge drugs, AU alumni are ready to serve.

Here are six alumni from across the U.S. who are investing in the overall health and well-being of the world around them.

In South Carolina: A physician practices knowledge and compassion

Dr. Brian Walker

At a time when a patient can feel more like a number than a human being, Dr. Brian Walker ’94 approaches his work as a physician with humanity. He treats his patients as if they were part of his extended family.

It is an approach he cultivated as a student at AU and has carried with him throughout his career, helping people in life’s toughest moments.

“Medicine is a field where there is no set on or off button,” said Walker. “We are dedicated to people and their families. We are there on their best day, and they remember our faces during their worst nightmares. Knowledge and compassion make the best students and the best doctors. I started learning that at AU.”

While working toward his Bachelor of Science in Biology at AU, Walker fluctuated on whether he wanted to go to medical school. Indeed, it was a few years after graduation when Walker decided to fully commit to becoming a doctor.

He credits his AU professors, especially biology professors Jane Davis and Carol Crane, with helping him to see his potential and push through the obstacles to reach his goal.

“My professors didn’t give up on me once I graduated,” said Walker. “That is what I’ve always appreciated about AU. They follow you as long as you need — well beyond graduation. My mentors and professors were honest. They let me know it was time to get serious if I truly wanted to do what I professed.”

Walker went on to graduate from Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Iowa and complete his family medicine residency at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

After his medical school training, Walker spent several years working in emergency rooms and urgent care clinics in the South. He joined the Duke University Health System in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had an academic appointment at Duke University School of Medicine. He held several leadership positions, including medical director at one of Duke’s urgent care centers, and medical review officer.

Today, Walker, 49, works as an urgent care physician at Atrium Health Urgent Care center in Indian Land, South Carolina, where he, his wife (whom he met at AU), and their 12-year-old twins recently moved to be closer to Walker’s parents.

As a physician, he has been on the front lines of treating patients for COVID-19. His main challenge every day is combating misinformation about the coronavirus disease. Some patients come in wanting a test so that they can be cleared go to a large party — that’s not how the virus works, he informs them — while others push back on wearing a mask.

He sees these encounters as opportunities to help his patients understand the pandemic. He believes that every physician should always teach, and that doctors should view their patients as partners in their care.

Knowledge and compassion make the best students and the best doctors. I started learning that at AU. Brian Walker ’94

Walker is also passionate about serving as a role model for young Black men who are interested in medicine. Fewer than 5% of physicians practicing in the U.S. are Black or African American, while Black men make up less than 3% of the nation’s physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. From economic disadvantages to systemic racism, Black men face many obstacles in their path to medicine, the AAMC said in a report last year. It’s a disparity that Walker and other leading physicians are working to change.

“Kids have to see Black male physicians in their communities to think about becoming one,” said Walker. “I have had my share of Black kids and adults tell me they had never seen one before me.”

A student again himself, Walker is two classes away from earning his MBA in healthcare management.

“I tell students to trust your professors,” Walker said. “Trust that they know what they’re talking about. Get with your career advisor. Work hard and know that you can do it, whatever field you are in.”

In Pennsylvania: A physiologist mentors Latinas in STEM

Liz Cambron

Liz Cambron ’13 remembers the exact moment she realized that she wanted to study biology. It was during an ophthalmology appointment for her mother. On a computer screen, the doctor was looking at an image of the back of her mother’s eye.

“It blew my mind,” said Cambron, who was in high school at the time. “In that very moment in that room, I was like, OK, I want to do something like this.”

Cambron grew up in a Mexican American family in Chicago. She spent a lot of time accompanying family members to doctors’ offices for treatment of diabetes and other health issues, and in the process became fascinated with medicine.

“I like to say that science chose me,” she said. “I originally wanted to go into ophthalmology. I knew I wanted to help people, and at that time I thought that was the only way I could. Once I learned while as a student at AU that I could help people from behind the scenes doing research, I changed paths.”

Today, Cambron, 29, is a comparative physiologist with an expertise in insects, insulin signaling, and metabolism. As a lab manager at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, she oversees lab activities related to the study of diseases that spread between humans and animals, so-called zoonotic diseases such as tuberculosis, and most recently COVID-19.

While earning her Bachelor of Science in Health Science at AU, Cambron thrived in the small class sizes, which allowed her to build strong relationships with her professors.

“I didn’t know what opportunities were out there,” she said. “My professors helped me see my own potential.”

At the suggestion of Mark Zelman, associate professor of biology, Cambron applied for and landed a three-month summer internship at North Dakota State University as part of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. It was her senior year, and the program was only for undergraduates, but Zelman told her to give it a shot. The program changed her life.

“That was my first exposure to grad school,” Cambron said. “I worked with a grad student one-on-one for the whole summer. That experience showed me what it was like to be a grad student and what a PhD research project looked like. I thought to myself, “I’m going to get to do research all the time and get paid for it? That sounds amazing.”

Another AU professor, Eva Serrano, who taught Cambron’s Spanish class at the time, helped her secure the funding she needed to attend graduate school at NDSU. Cambron also secured an NSF grant to work on a research project at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service studying alfalfa leaf-cutting bees and the role that insulin signaling plays in their development. Her research has implications for how farmers store bees during the winter so that more bees survive. Eager to learn more, Cambron went on to earn her PhD in cellular and molecular biology at NDSU.

Today, outside of her lab work, Cambron serves as a mentor to women and minority groups to get them excited about careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). She is passionate about being a role model for underrepresented groups in STEM.

“I feel it is my duty to reach back and help others,” said Cambron. “I wish I would have seen more Latina scientists when I was growing up. Getting a PhD was not easy. When I struggled with a science course, I wish there had been someone who looked like me to go to for help. I want to be that person for someone else. That’s why I want to use my experience to help others see that if a first-generation Mexican American woman from a low-income community can achieve her dreams against all odds, they sure can too.”

In Texas: A zoologist lives with the lions, protects wildlife

Sara Bjerklie

It was a wild year for Sara Bjerklie ’09.

As a lead zoologist at the Dallas Zoo, Bjerklie battled COVID-19 work restrictions, the temporary shutdown of the zoo due to the pandemic, and a record-breaking Texas snowstorm that forced her and her team to camp out on site to keep the animals warm and fed.

So it was a joy when she got to be part of a remarkable event: the first time in nearly 50 years that a litter of African lion cubs had been born at the Dallas Zoo, the oldest and largest zoo in Texas.

“Taking part in these three cubs being born is the highlight of my career,” she said.

Bjerklie has been working at zoos for more than a decade. She had dreamed of a career with animals ever since she was a young girl attending a middle school camp at the Brookfield Zoo just outside Chicago. While earning her Bachelor of Science in Biology degree at AU, she began to realize that her dream was possible. Her favorite AU courses taught her about plant and animal life in an active, hands-on way. AU made science fun and sparked her curiosity about the natural world.

She returned to Brookfield Zoo for an AU internship, and that led to a part-time job working at the children’s zoo, caring for animals, and teaching zoo visitors about the need for conservation.

“During my college internship, I discovered I absolutely loved it,” said Bjerklie. “I loved the hands-on aspect of the field, and interacting with the guests and telling them about the animals and why conservation is so important.”

In 2013, Bjerklie joined the Dallas Zoo as a children’s zoo specialist and has been moving up the ranks ever since. Last year, she was named the lead zoologist of the mammal team, looking after lions, tigers, cheetahs, otters, and even an anteater. Her days involve everything from feeding animals and caring for their surroundings to taking animals’ blood pressure, checking their teeth, drawing blood samples, and monitoring their weight.

Animal training is also part of her routine. She sets goals for the animals to achieve specific behaviors that will help the medical team do their jobs, behaviors such as lying down to receive an injection or opening their mouths to allow for a dental exam.

As part of her work with Bahati, the new mom lion, Bjerklie and her team trained the lion to jump up on a specially made bench for ultrasounds. They monitored her pregnancy, keeping daily charts of her weight and her behaviors, and alerted the vets when it appeared she was starting to go into labor. When the cubs arrived, there was a surprise. The ultrasounds had shown only two cubs, but there was a third in the litter.

The births were unusual in another way. The cubs were delivered by Caesarian section. Bjerklie was on hand for bottle-feeding the baby lions and for the physical therapy necessary for one of the cubs who had trouble walking. She was also part of the zoologist team that came up with names for each cub on the basis of their personalities: Ilola (“to become strong” in the Sesotho language of South Africa), Izwi (“vocal” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe), and Tadala (“we have been blessed” in the Southeast African Chewa language).

Ever passionate about protecting animals, Bjerklie, 33, serves as a board member and head of the conservation team at the American Association of Zoo Keepers. She is active in the organization’s annual Bowling for Rhinos event, raising money for the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.

A few years ago, she took a group trip to Lewa to experience the animal conservancy herself. She saw the critically endangered black rhino, as well as zebras, elephants, lions, giraffes, and leopards.

“When our plane touched down on the ground, we all started crying,” said Bjerklie. “We were so excited to see how our work affects animals out in the wild. It gave me renewed hope that our work here makes a difference.”

In Arizona: An athletic trainer helps Chicago Cubs minor league players stay healthy

James Edwards

If you want to work in professional sports, you must learn to love the long days.

During spring training, James Edwards ’16 drives under the starry Arizona morning sky to Sloan Park, where he arrives by 5:30 a.m. to begin his day as minor league assistant medical coordinator for the Chicago Cubs.

He spends a 12-plus hour day attending meetings, treating injuries, and working every baseball game. He goes home tired, then prepares for the next day when he will do it all over again.

Edwards wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s awesome to get to work with athletes at the top of their sport,” said Edwards. “All they want to do is get better and make it to the big leagues, and whatever I can do to get them there, that is goal No. 1.”

It’s amazing to work with athletes at a high level. The stakes are higher. Their body is their career, and it’s just awesome to be a part of it. James Edwards ’16

Since graduating from AU five years ago with a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training, Edwards has been working at the Chicago Cubs organization. He started as an intern before securing a full-time position. Today, he helps to oversee the athletic trainers and medical staff for all of the Cubs’ Minor League Baseball teams across the country, including teams in Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Edwards credits AU with opening the door to his career. During a May term class, when AU athletic training students spent a week in Colorado visiting sports venues, Edwards and his class met the head trainer of the Colorado Rockies.

The trip changed Edwards’ life. A Spartan baseball player, it was during that trip that Edwards discovered he didn’t have to be a player to work in Major League Baseball. He learned about the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society, where he saw a listing for an internship with the Chicago Cubs. He applied and landed the internship. Quickly, he realized exactly what he wanted from his career: “Professional sports or bust.”

Playing baseball growing up, Edwards became fascinated with human anatomy and physiology. While attending Yorkville High School, Edwards took classes in sports medicine through the school district’s partnership with the Indian Valley Vocational Center. At AU, he played third base for the Spartans for a year, then left the team to put all his efforts into athletic training studies, focusing on what it takes to help high-level athletes recover faster.

He would listen to his AU professors repeat one mantra that has stuck with him his entire career: “Anatomy is power.”

“That’s our core, fundamental principle,” Edwards said. “The nice thing about athletic training is that anatomy doesn’t change. Once you have a solid base and you understand anatomy, plenty of other things play off that, whether it’s prescribing rehab or evaluating an injury.”

Edwards advanced his education by earning a Master of Science in Exercise Science online from California University of Pennsylvania while working full time with the Cubs. It was a demanding schedule. Edwards leaned on his experience at AU, where he learned how to stay organized and manage his time.

Like the players he treats, Edwards has big aspirations. His long-term goal is to become a head athletic trainer in the major leagues. Perhaps, from there, he might become a team’s medical director. But at 28, Edwards knows that he has plenty of long days ahead.

“It’s amazing to work with athletes at a high level,” said Edwards. “The stakes are higher. Their body is their career, and it’s just awesome to be a part of it.”

In Tennessee: A biomedical engineer advances pediatric brain cancer research

Kyle Newman

Kyle Newman ’14 became fascinated by biomedical engineering during an AU physics class.

It was an unexpected discovery. When he came to AU as a freshman, he wanted to become a physical therapist. He took biology, anatomy, physiology, and other prerequisite course work, and he spent hours shadowing physical therapists. But, when it came time to go to graduate school, a necessary step to becoming a licensed physical therapist, he didn’t get in.

Physical therapy programs are extremely competitive, with limited slots open each year, and it’s not unusual for applicants to try for several years to get accepted. Newman considered continuing to pursue his goal and resubmit his applications, but he also wanted to be realistic.

Fortunately, at the advice of his AU professors and advisors, Newman had a backup plan. While working on his Bachelor of Science in Health Science, he had also been looking into a career in biomedical engineering, a fast-growing area of science that applies the problem-solving techniques of engineering to biology and medicine. The field is responsible for medical devices such as pacemakers and artificial hips, and it is behind futuristic technologies including stem cell engineering and 3D bioprinting of artificial organs.

Science has so many cool jobs that you don’t realize are out there until you start looking into the fields. Kyle Newman ’14

“It’s something I never thought I would get into,” Newman said. “Science has so many cool jobs that you don’t realize are out there until you start looking into the fields.”

This was a career he could get excited about. He applied for a biomedical engineering graduate program at Southern Illinois University and was accepted. He hasn’t looked back.

Today, Newman, 28, is a senior research technologist with the Department of Developmental Neurobiology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Newman works in a lab that grows stem cells for brain research, leading to improved treatments for children with brain tumors and other neurological diseases.

At St. Jude’s, he has found a drive and a purpose to his work. He is surrounded by smart coworkers and inspired by the patients and their families. Every day, he feels a sense of working toward something greater than himself.

Newman said he feels lucky to have had classes at AU that opened his mind and presented new career options. His favorite classes drew him into the subject matter and made him think differently — it was the physics class that sparked his new passion. By staying receptive to unforeseen possibilities, today he is able to do fascinating work.

“It’s good to have a Plan B,” Newman said. “Life doesn’t always work out the way you plan, and that’s OK. If you stay open, who knows what awaits you.”

In New York: A research scientist works on developing cutting-edge drugs

Candi Esquina

Candi Esquina ’12 spends much of her time as a research scientist in the cold room of a drug discovery lab in Buffalo, New York. She dresses for the cold room, always cooler than 40 degrees, by layering a hoodie under her lab coat.

In the center of the lab is a sample-preparation and liquid chromatography system, which looks like a sci-fi espresso machine, replete with tubes, valves, screens, and bottles. It is one of the main tools in the protein purification process at the heart of her work at Albany Molecular Research Inc. (AMRI), an Albany, New York-based global provider of advanced drug development and manufacturing solutions.

“With these proteins, everything has to be cold,” Esquina said. “You don’t want the protein to become unstable.”

Her most recent project is to produce proteins used in the development of treatments for a neurodegenerative disease. AMRI has also been involved in supporting the making of COVID-19 vaccines.

Working for AMRI means that Esquina, 30, must be precise and have high standards, something she embraced during her undergraduate years at AU, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Health Science.

AU brought out my curiosity about the scientific world and made me question how things work in our bodies and in the real world. Candi Esquina ’12

A native Chicagoan, Esquina came to AU thinking she was interested in a career in computer science, but soon found herself fascinated by classes in human and cell biology. She joined the Health Science Club and the Latin American Student Organization, and she tutored fellow students in microbiology. She earned both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Scholarship and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund General College Scholarship.

AU professors trained Esquina to explain complex concepts, she said, both in verbal presentations and in writing. Now, she is thankful for that training — at AMRI, she’s tasked with giving clients biweekly updates on her projects and presenting her work to scientific audiences in the industry.

“AU brought out my curiosity about the scientific world and made me question how things work in our bodies and in the real world,” Esquina said. “Anybody who’s interested in the health sciences has that same curiosity about how the world works.”

At the advice of her AU professors, Esquina decided to go to graduate school. She earned a master’s degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in chemistry from Purdue University.

The dual advanced degrees led to a research scientist position at AMRI. Lately, she’s been training AMRI’s new scientists in the protein purification process.

Working for a corporation differs from work in a university lab, Esquina said. At universities, researchers can spend years experimenting on the same problem — there’s room for trial and error. At AMRI, clients request the exact amount of protein they need in a specific time frame, often within months — there is very little room for error. “I just try my best in order to produce the best quality of work,” Esquina said. “I like working toward something that could make a real difference in people’s lives.”