Research opportunities, campus involvement set biomedical sciences student up for success as future pediatric heart surgeon

Contact: Erin Flynn
Grace Filpi celebrates with outstretched hands in her cap and gown inside Lawson Arena.

Grace Filpi is a proud Lawson Lunatic and soon-to-be graduate of Western's biomedical sciences program.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In just three-and-a-half years at Western Michigan University, Grace Filpi has more than made her mark. From student ambassador to undergraduate researcher to COVID-19 Student Coalition leader, she's engaged herself in just about every corner of campus. She practically bleeds brown and gold, and it's evident in one of her favorite Western roles: Lawson Lunatic.

"Going to hockey games has been one of the highlights outside of the classroom at Western and will always hold a special place in my heart," she says, noting the electric energy in the student section in Lawson Arena, which is consistently ranked among the top atmospheres in college hockey.

Filpi's passion for the Broncos may never have been ignited if it weren't for an online college search tool her high school in Huntley, Illinois, provided to help students find universities that aligned with their priorities and interests. She knew medical school was in her future as she was inspired to become a pediatric heart surgeon after seeing a cousin born with a heart condition endure multiple transplants.

Grace Filpi poses with her hands on her hips while wearing a graduation cap and brown dress. There are yellow bleachers in the background.

Filpi plans to apply to medical school and become a pediatric heart surgeon.

"I knew I wanted to be pre-med, and I would go wherever that took me," says Filpi, who will graduate on Saturday, Dec. 17, with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences. "I didn't even have WMU on my radar of schools to visit," but Western came up as a 99% match "for everything I wanted in a university."

Filpi scheduled a trip to Kalamazoo for spring break, and her fate was sealed.

"On my first visit, I immediately felt the sense of community and belonging that the campus had to offer," she remembers.

She also made a lasting connection with Dr. John Spitsbergen, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, during a breakout session at an admitted student event. He told her to email him when she returned to campus and he would show her around the research labs in Haenicke Hall.

"I emailed him the day of Fall Welcome, ended up meeting with him on the second day of school and I've been in the lab ever since," she says.

And it didn't stop with Spitsbergen. She's made lasting connections with many of her instructors.

"It's just something that I couldn't find anywhere else," she says. "The fact that the faculty members care so much for students and went out of their way to remember me was huge.”

Filpi joined Dr. Karim Essani's cancer virology lab a few weeks into her first year. Initially she observed and soaked up as much as she could from a doctoral student working there before working her way up to active research on viruses that could slow and stop the growth of different types of cancer.

"Once I started to see results of these projects, I realized the true potential the research I was part of could have on cancer," Filpi says. "I continue to learn new things in the research lab every day and have found my true passion for science and learning. It was in the research lab where I was able to confidently commit to a career in medicine, where science and learning will become part of my everyday life."

Such robust research opportunities will also give Filpi an edge over her peers as she prepares for the next step in her career journey.

"This was meant to be. I don't know if I would have had any of these experiences at any other university," she says. "I'm super excited for my future, and I cannot wait for medical school. ...It's what I've been dreaming of for so long."


Grace Filpi Dances with her hands in the air.

Filpi served as assistant program manager for Fall Welcome.

Filpi's experiences outside the classroom have been as impactful as those inside. Her pre-college visits to Western inspired her to become a student ambassador in the Office of Admissions and lead campus tours, making connections with hundreds of future Broncos.

"This program allowed me to grow in ways I never expected, both as a student and a leader," she says. "Being able to interact with prospective students and families and help them make one of the most important decisions of their lives was such a rewarding experience."

Filpi also served as assistant program manager for Fall Welcome her third year at Western, planning activities to get first-year students engaged with campus life.

"I had to learn how to be adaptable at times and think outside the box while also learning how to delegate tasks on a team and be as efficient as possible. These skills are going to help me in my future as a doctor," she says. "I learned a lot about who I actually am and saw how much I actually thrive under pressure."

Being so involved on campus, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Filpi particularly hard.

"I felt like I couldn't do anything to help on campus and I felt kind of stuck. But then I stumbled on the COVID-19 Student Coalition," she says. The registered student organization comprising students from various disciplines worked to educate campus about COVID-19, show students how to protect themselves and their communities, and stop the spread.

"I started getting involved and volunteering to do things on campus. I helped with contact tracing at Sindecuse … making phone calls and answering a bunch of questions about procedures and testing. Being able to make an impact on campus that way was a really positive experience for me, and it also made me find that I have a little bit of passion for public health."

The depth of experiences and opportunities Filpi encountered at Western helped broaden her base of medical knowledge and expanded her career potential for the future.

"Being an undergraduate student in a research lab taught me independence and organization, which are skills I was able to carry over into my classes," she says. "Working multiple jobs on campus provided me with leadership skills that I will be able to take with me the rest of my life."

While closing this chapter at Western may be bittersweet, Filpi says she will carry her Bronco pride with her long after she walks across the stage at Miller Auditorium to get her diploma.

"I cannot pinpoint one specific thing that has made me proud to be a Bronco. It's my supportive professors who would meet virtually with me at 10 p.m. because that's when I was available to meet; it's the relationships I have built with faculty members throughout my years and knowing their office doors are always open for me to stop in; it's my bosses from my on-campus jobs who value me as a student," she says. "It's the impact every single person at WMU has had on my life."

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