Riley Zielinski finally nails it in the lab, then tops her success with Germany internship

Riley Zelensky was in the biology lab late one night, and she did her experiment — again.

“I didn’t believe it would work. There haven’t been the last eight times, wasting about a week’s worth of work each time. I’m honestly tired of it, and ready to give up trying another project for my thesis,” recalls Zelensky, a first-year student in the program Biology with honors teaching, and has high school students in chemistry and anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“But then slowly, as the panel reader spits out the data in bright colors into an Excel file, I realize that my experiment worked. It did! I had just done the thing I had dreamed of since childhood. I had given birth to new knowledge of the human race. I was a scientist without a doubt and without a doubt. Doubt. That was the first moment I felt like I could feel this whole thing.”

It was a successful step on Zelensky’s path to graduation from the school, where she plans to pursue a Ph.D. Working on a globally relevant infectious disease such as malaria or tuberculosis.

Last summer, she took another leap and headed to Germany for an internship with an internship in science and engineering (RISE) in Germany – even though she didn’t really know how to speak German and had never traveled outside the US.

Riley Zelensky and her parents Scott Zelensky and Amy Petsch, as they prepare for her to spend the summer in Germany.
Riley Zelensky and her parents Scott Zelensky and Amy Petsch, as they prepare for her to spend the summer in Germany.

RISE Germany is a summer internship program at top research institutions across Germany in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences, engineering and computer science.

Fortunately for Zielinski, the working language is English, so she can easily work with her teachers, Professor Frank Mokenhaupt and doctoral student Willmuel van Loon, at the Institute of Tropical Medicine and International Health at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, where she was a member of the Malaria Research Group.

“I heard about this program during my freshman year, through a friend and mentor at HTC. I applied and won the award, and she encouraged me to apply as well as soon as I was ready. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I chose to wait until this year to apply, so this was the A dream in the pipeline for a few years now.”

Institute of Tropical Medicine and International Health at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin
Institute of Tropical Medicine and International Health at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin

“I had never taken any German lessons before, and hardly spoke any German when I landed on German soil. I learned a lot there through immersion and necessity. I learned to count to nine so as not to mistake my U-Bahn training, and how to explain my food allergy, but Fortunately, most people in Berlin speak English and they helped me when my three months of learning DuoLingo weren’t enough.”

But Zelensky said her experience was not without a bit of culture shock.

“I had not left the United States before this trip,” Zelensky added. “I was prepared for the big differences (language, public transportation, food, etc.), but I was surprised by how many little things drove me away. Their bike lanes are on the sidewalk in Berlin, and I almost hit a bike on my first day there because I didn’t know I was I walked down a bike lane. I walked regularly past buildings older than my own; in fact, the hospital where I worked was established in 1710. Little things like this continued to surprise me every day, and it made living in a place like Berlin all the more exciting.”

Riley Zelensky in the Berlin Lab.
Riley Zelensky in the Berlin Lab.

Zielinski felt more at home in the lab, as her research focused on understanding the factors that influence the growth of malaria within the human host.

“The relationship between the parasite that causes malaria and the internal environment provided by the host is very complex, and any differences that may occur in parasite reproduction due to different conditions are important factors to understand when providing public health guidance in malaria-prone areas,” Zielinsky said. “For example, my current research project focuses on understanding the relationship between anemic status, or low blood iron, in host and parasite development. The results of these experiments could theoretically influence public health policy, but more directly will help us understand what makes A suitable host for the malaria parasite.”

Q&A with Riley Zelensky

Q: Who are your favorite teachers at OHIO and how have they affected your life?

A: I have a laundry list of people to thank at OHIO, for shaping me into the person, world, and student that I am today. First, Dr. Soichi Tanda, who met me when I was 17 years old in high school in his biology lecture and decided to take me and get me into HTC. His constant guidance, direction, and caring presence were gifts as I acclimated to college and began preparing for what was to come after graduation.

Dr. Ronan Carroll, principal investigator in Carroll’s lab, has always put his unwavering faith in me and my science, even when others don’t. His dedication to the people who work in his lab has given me a lot of confidence to face whatever might happen in my career as a scientist and academic.

Dr. Corinne Nielsen taught me how to think as a scientist, Dr. Janet gave me my first laboratory position, and Dr. Laura Saltman showed me the wonderful world of microbes, where I found my academic home. The faculty at OHIO is a notable asset to the college. Support for all your ambitions will be everywhere you look on our campus.

From left, Raven Basstock, Emily Sudnick, Ryan Steyer, Riley Zelensky and Emily Marino
From left, Raven Pastock, Emily Sudnick, Ryan Steyer, Riley Zelensky, and Emily Marino in Carroll’s lab

Q: What is the hardest hill you have had to climb (except Jeff Hill) at OHIO? How did you overcome the challenges or obstacles on your way?

A: While Jeff Hill is clearly a competitor (Morton Hill in Winter is another beast entirely), White Will has always been my personal self-confidence. I have a habit of underestimating my successes and instead focus on the next achievement or deadline. However, my support system here at OHIO is full of people willing to help me celebrate all the good things that happen, no matter how small. I owe a lot to the friends and mentors I have here who are excellent at making me stop and appreciate all the accomplishments I’ve made.

Q: What are your favorite memories of OHIO?

A: A lot of my favorite memories of OHIO are from my involvement outside the classroom. I felt proud when the OHIO Women’s Crew finished our second race in one day – over 20 kilometers of total rowing. Meeting my new roommate in College Green three days before moving, not yet knowing that she would still be one of my best friends to this day. Plus 6 a.m. ping-pong rowing, and breakfast afterwards with my teammates. Hiking, late nights at Alden, and early mornings on the water with my friends.

Q: What is the one thing you should tell a new OHIO student not to miss?

A: Off campus – go hiking in the Strouds, see Hocking Hills in the fall, and explore the surrounding communities and unique culture found in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. There is plenty to see and do on campus, but there is plenty to experience in the surroundings as well.