Sisters in science

Students Olivia and Mya Burken have put their love for science to work assisting with clinical trials at Mizzou’s Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building.

Olivia and Mya Burken in the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building. Lauren Chabaya / University of Missouri.

Sept. 27,2023
Contact: Sara Diedrich, 573-882-2343,

It seems inevitable that the Burken sisters would be assisting researchers with clinical trials at the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building on the University of Missouri campus. After all, exploration and discovery are in their blood.

While their friends grew up watching shows on Nickelodeon, Olivia and Mya Burken came of age with the Science Channel and National Geographic. They collected rocks and fossils and begged their parents for science kits at the department store. Born only 13 months apart, the sisters were inseparable as youngsters. They often tagged along as their father, Joel Burken, made his greenhouse rounds at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri, where he studies phytoforensics and engineered natural systems as Curators’ Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

So, when Olivia Burken, 22, now a first-year graduate student studying biological engineering at MU, was offered an opportunity to assist NextGen researchers, she jumped at the chance to work inside the state-of-the-art facility. “I came to Mizzou to pursue my passion for science,” she said. “NextGen has given me the chance to learn firsthand from three world-class scientists in the Clinical Translational Science Unit (CTSU) — giving me a definite leg up as I move forward within this field.”

Eventually, Mya Burken, 21, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering and pre-medicine at MU, joined her sister at the CTSU. “In the CTSU, Olivia and I got to work with researchers who are studying diabetes-related cardiovascular disease and treatments to improve vascular function,” Mya Burken said. “As a young adult working to figure out my life plan, the advice, mentoring and friendship I’ve received from the people at NextGen is indescribable. I am truly grateful to be a part of this group and their impact on my life is immeasurable.”

A place for students in research labs

Camila Manrique-Acevedo, a physician and professor of medicine who oversaw the sisters in the CTSU, said students like the Burkens bring a special zeal and curiosity to university research labs.

“Undergraduate students like Olivia and Mya are the backbone of every lab on campus,” Manrique-Acevedo said. “They are excited about learning new techniques and finding new ways to improve people’s lives. They’re eager to learn — and they play an important role on our team.”

In their time at NextGen, the Burken sisters have assisted with a variety of tasks in the lab including labeling, processing and inventorying specimens. They’ve also helped with study recruitment activities, interacted with pharmacists and assisted with equipment operation and data collection during study visits.

“Having students on the team is good for everyone in the lab because they always arrive optimistic and ready for any task I assign them,” Manrique-Acevedo said. “That has a positive effect on the whole clinical studies team.” 

While Olivia Burken is still settling on the details of her career path, she said the experiences at NextGen and the connections she’s made with researchers have enlightened her journey.   

“I have been able to learn how researchers examine clinical needs and have developed knowledge to provide solutions within health care,” Olivia Burken said. “My team also gave me a glimpse into the processes and procedures behind clinical investigations. The scientific collaboration has left me so grateful for this experience.”

The next generation of women in STEM

As children, the Burken sisters each have memories of being the “only girl” during forays into math club and gifted programs. Today, they are active members of Mizzou Engineering’s Society of Women Engineers and are relishing in the opportunity to work with female researchers at NextGen.

“Dr. Manrique-Acevedo is phenomenal and so easy to talk to,” Mya Burken said. “Though my current plan is to practice medicine, Dr. Manrique-Acevedo and everyone at the CTSU have opened my eyes to other opportunities that extend beyond and into research. This experience has given me not only the direction on where I want to focus the rest of my career, but also the understanding that within medicine and research, I have endless opportunities.”

Olivia Burken added that seeing women in STEM at NextGen has inspired the sisters to become role models to attract more girls to the science and research space.

“We really try to get other female students involved,” Olivia Burken said. “We also do outreach with local schools and Girl Scout troops, trying to inspire young women to explore science. We want them to know there are women out here who want to support them.”

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