Get to know Rachel Bergstrom

Professor of Biology Rachel Bergstrom is hard to miss on campus — and not just because of her pink hair and bright glasses. She’s one of the most exuberant people in any room she enters. A former AMP mentor and co-host of the video series, Let’s Talk Coronavirus, she’s now the director of the School of Health Sciences. She discusses her vision for the school, how she got here, and what — and who — has helped her become the beloved professor and mentor she is today.

School of Health Sciences Director Rachel Bergstrom brings joy and a passion for people and science to all the spaces she enters.

What excites you most about the School of Health Sciences and a new nursing partnership with Edgewood College?

So many things! Kristin Labby has built so many great advising and planning events and programs for students, and I’m excited to get them out there. I’m excited for us to highlight our alumni. It’s medical school acceptance season, and I’m excited to highlight recent alumni [who have gone on to professional school], and all of them have been like, “Yes! Get me in touch with current students. I’ve really learned a lot through this process.”

[For the BSN program through Edgewood College] we really want students to still have the identity of a Beloit College student. With the BSN, students will be able to stay here; they won’t have to uproot for a short time and then uproot again after they’re done. Everybody is so excited about this opportunity and what it means for our students and the community. Not many schools are doing this kind of on-campus partnership in the way that we’re doing it. I’m excited about having nursing students on our campus. It’s a profession that fits really well with the liberal arts.

What’s already in place with the school that students can get involved in?

We have our first class of emergency medical technician (EMT) students over at Blackhawk Tech right now, and they’re having a blast and learning a ton. It’s been hard and exciting and frustrating and exhilarating for all of them, so seeing how that has worked this semester, I’m thinking of the best way to do it next. It’s so wonderful that they can do it as part of their Beloit time; it’s like an internship of sorts. I’m super excited about that.

We’ve got our second semester running with the Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education (CIPE). Our students are doing a dementia care and awareness program. The goal [of CIPE] is to help people work better in healthcare teams and increase awareness around dementia. I’m facilitating one of these groups, with professional school students from UW-Madison and our students. This semester, we’re working with caregivers of people living with dementia. Students have gotten to meet and interview caregivers, and they’ll be working with a dementia care specialist through the Aging and Disabilities Resource Center. Instead of focusing on the person living with dementia, the program is focused on the resources the caregiver needs. In my group, they’re living in a pretty rural area, and that gets complicated making sure this person has the support they need in-home and the ability to take care of themself. The goal is to give the caregiver a packet of resources tailored to what they need. The caregiver is thinking about when they are going to move their loved one into a more supportive care — and how long can they keep them at home with them? We have some ideas of questions we need to ask and how to approach it. It’s been a really eye-opening experience for our students, and I hope we can continue our relationship. Students get a badge — a credential on their resume — for this. It’s been great to work with them.

Observing the effects of the solar eclipse on shadows in April. Observing the effects of the solar eclipse on shadows in April.

What about new experiences they can look forward to in the future?

We’re working on building a stronger relationship with the University of Wisconsin-Madison around physical therapy. We’re also still navigating our partnership with Beloit Health System. We have a pathway to shadowing and internships there, and we placed several students there for the second half of this semester for shadowing. It’ll be a professional experience to apply, interview, and get accepted, and students will have to think about what kind of shadow experience they want, what they want to see. We’re working with nursing education folks, and they’ll tailor the shadowing to the students’ needs and make sure they’re making connections for the students. Lots of students come to Beloit and say, “I want to do something in healthcare, but I don’t know what.” Let’s get them in to see a few things.

What brought you to Beloit?

Grad school taught me that the place that I can make the biggest impact in science is in teaching scientists. I have a liberal arts background; I went to North Park University in Chicago, and I hugely benefited from the liberal arts training. It fit really well with my personality and interests. I found that it was important to have that opportunity to do stuff that wasn’t science and think about how it’s all connected and how different ways of thinking through problems can be influenced by interdisciplinary work. I also benefited from the small class size; I knew all of my professors and had the opportunity to work with them and get to know them as people. They encouraged my enthusiasm.

I had thought in college that I wanted to go to med school. I took the MCAT and I worked in a hospital for four years as a phlebotomist and lost interest in working in a hospital setting. I was more interested in research. I got a job in a research lab at Northwestern, then got into grad school. I got into my dream school and thought I wanted to have a research lab and realized that wasn’t the thing that would bring me the most joy or make the most difference. At the end of grad school, I felt kind of lost. I found a sabbatical replacement [position] at Mankato State and then was applying for jobs and knew my parents were going to be retiring close by in Monroe, Ill., so I applied to Beloit and interviewed and was like, “I could work here!”

Proudly displaying an honorary nurse degree received by Edgewood College for her work to establish the Proudly displaying an “honorary nurse” degree received by Edgewood College for her work to establish the dual-degree nursing partnership.

What gets you excited about teaching college students?

My training is in neuroscience, and I teach one neuro course once every other year, so I get to teach a bunch of different stuff. I love that I’m teaching Emerging Diseases — which I’m not trained in, but I’ve loved training myself in. I made my first T-shirt [this year] based on a case study that we do in the class about how they eradicated rabies from foxes in Central Europe. Britt Scharringhausen designed it for me. I like that I can take science seriously without being serious myself. I can find silly things like that that students will remember. I like that this is a place where I can teach science with high expectations for my students, but I can incorporate myself into the classroom and the way that I work with students through advising.

It’s been important for my professional development that I’ve been encouraged to do things outside of the biology department. I learned a lot through the AMP program, and now I’m learning more as the new director of the School of Health Sciences. It’s helping me to better understand the college as a whole and the ways in which students are experiencing this place, which then comes back to how my classroom is set up, my office hours, how I interact with students. I think that it comes down to feeling like I can be myself, and it’s not like I’m trying to match what other people are doing or expectations in science. I get to be myself, and that improves what I do.

I dyed my hair pink one summer and said, “Ugh, now I have to dye it back. I have to be professional.” [Professor Emeritus of Biology] Ken Yasukawa was like, “Why? That doesn’t take away your Ph.D.” It’s been helpful to remember that. I got some good mentoring not just from my department, but also from women who are in administration and have been in the sciences for a long time. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve found my place at Beloit where I can be more people’s cup of tea. That all matters for connections with students, too.

Who were some of those mentors who taught you how to be a mentor?

Yaffa Grossman and Ken Yasukawa were incredibly important to me for getting me through tenure, supporting me. Britt Scharringhausen has also helped me to stick with who I am in important ways. President Eric Boynton and Chuck Lewis helped me to figure out that I like to think about institutional systems, and that wasn’t something that I thought I was interested in. And then my mom! My mom is really good at connecting with people and just being friendly.

What gets you ready for a busy semester?

The big thing is that I’ve started to get much better at making boundaries between work and family. That has made a huge difference in my life in the last year. I have an almost three-year-old and a five-year-old, and it’s so hard to get those boundaries. Another thing is that I have to have not-work things and creative things to do.

I like that I can take science seriously without being serious myself. I get to be ... "I like that I can take science seriously without being serious myself. I get to be myself, and that improves what I do.”

I knit — everyone knows that I knit everywhere. I’m also finishing redoing my front rooms [in my home]. Over Christmas break, I undertook a huge project of taking down a wall, and now I have to finish it before I get to other projects. I’ve been a runner for most of my adult life, I’m prioritizing that. I teach from 8-10 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and then 10-11:30, I run. That has been great. I work long days because of committees and governance and faculty meetings, so making that space and time for myself to stop and do something else really has made a difference.

Britt and I have regular study hall together. We go to Bagels and More and have coffee and work. It’s nice to have time in a different space. We don’t necessarily work on anything in particular, but having the accountability of someone else physically sitting there — and the cinnamon rolls! It’s wonderful. It’s nice to be in a different space with someone I don’t see on a regular basis otherwise.

May 07, 2024

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