UI grad sets sights on medical career

By Joel Mills
Reprinted with permission from the Lewiston Tribune

MOSCOW - Erika Bengtson's favorite childhood toy was her dad's old microscope.

"I looked at basically everything I could get my hands on - spit, blades of grass, dirt, bugs - and of course I made my parents look at everything too," said the 2007 Lewiston High School grad.

"Unfortunately, I don't know if that microscope still works. I don't really think squishing bugs was very good for the lenses."

Bengtson's persistent curiosity about the microscopic universe led her to the biology and microbiology degrees she will receive Saturday from the University of Idaho. Now she wants to combine her passion for science with her compassion for her fellow human beings by pursuing a career in medicine.

"I've always been pretty healthy, but it's the wide disparity in health that's always been interesting to me," she said of her desire not only to heal, but to understand the root causes of both disease and well-being. "It's fascinating how two related people raised in similar environments can respond so differently."

Much of the wide variation that exists within the human health spectrum can be chalked up to genetics, but Bengtson said the legions of microorganism that exist within the body also play a major role.

"To really understand health you really need to appreciate the complexity of the entire system."

Bengtson's interest in exploring that complexity led her to follow in her father Greg's footsteps and enroll in the UI College of Science. She pursued a standard biology degree for three years, but an eye-opening ecology class assignment led her to shift direction.

Her term paper for the class investigated an evolutionary game of tag, where a pathogen (like the organism that causes malaria) evolves to more efficiently attack its host (like a person). Simultaneously, the host's ability to counterattack is also evolving.

"It's called 'The Red Queen's Hypotheses,'" Bengtson said, citing the passage from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" where Alice and the queen furiously race, but remain in the same place.

That turned into not only an interest in pathogens, but also the microbes that exist in healthy human bodies. So Bengtson worked her way into the laboratory of UI microbiologist Larry Forney, whose pioneering research into female reproductive health has shown that the vagina can hold a range of different microorganisms, and still be considered healthy.

Currently, gynecologists typically adhere to a much narrower definition of a healthy vagina that can lead to misdiagnosis and unnecessary treatments, Bengtson said.

Part of Bengtson's summer will be spent in Forney's lab, doing more basic research into the life cycles of the various microscopic organisms that live in the vagina. She will also spend some time in a Lewis-Clark State College classroom, getting certified as a nursing assistant.

Then Bengston said she will move to Boise in August, and hopefully have a job working in a hospital until she can enroll in a medical school next year.

Bengtson worked at the Snake River Community Clinic in Lewiston over the past two years, and her desire to get back into a clinical setting as quickly as possible speaks to what she called a lifelong dedication to service. She said she loves the problem-solving that happens in a laboratory, but her real love is helping people directly.

"Seeing the impact that doctors have on people's lives really makes me want to do that," she said.