Education

University of Iowa graduates pursue degrees in lab 'where we were made'

'This is insane. This is where you guys were conceived.'

Olivia Ray and Alyssa Ray are photographed outside of the Chemistry Building on the University of Iowa Campus in Iowa City on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Since their freshman year, the sisters have been working with researchers to study pre-eclampsia, a condition that affects pregnant women, in the Women's Health Tissue Repository in the Medical Research Facility. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Olivia Ray and Alyssa Ray are photographed outside of the Chemistry Building on the University of Iowa Campus in Iowa City on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Since their freshman year, the sisters have been working with researchers to study pre-eclampsia, a condition that affects pregnant women, in the Women's Health Tissue Repository in the Medical Research Facility. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree is an especially true idiom for Olivia and Alyssa Ray — except, in their case, the tree is a lab at the University of Iowa.

Almost since arriving on the UI campus in 2014, the graduating twins from Moline have been working in the UI Hospitals and Clinics’ maternal fetal tissue bank. It started as a volunteer gig they applied for as freshmen and turned into a part-time job underpinning their four years on campus and propelling them toward medical school next fall.

Not long after they started in the lab though, their parents came for a visit. The girls showed them campus, introduced them to friends, and shared with them parts of their new lives as college students — including where they’d been working.

“I said, ‘This is insane. This is where you guys were conceived,’” Steve Ray told The Gazette

Nearly two decades earlier, living in the Quad Cities at the time, Steve and Stephanie Ray found themselves traveling to Iowa City often for infertility treatment. And they were committed to it, trying again and again without success.

Through their efforts, Steve Ray said, he became all too familiar with the UIHC in vitro fertilization lab — which since has been relocated, but back then sat where the tissue bank sits today.

“I went up there multiple times to donate my end of the deal,” he said. “I remember sitting in the hallway hearing the microbiologists talking.”

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So when he saw it again — even with decades of separation and a trove of parenting memories crowding the space — Ray remembered it.

“It was the exact same lab. It was the exact same hood,” he said. “It was the same hood and lab they were fertilized in.”

The lab, despite frustrations he and his wife experienced there, has come to represent great joy and promise — starting with the breathtaking news in 1995 they were pregnant with twins and continuing today, as they watch their grown daughters pursue medical degrees there.

“It’s such a great thing to be their father,” Steve Ray said.

When Olivia and Alyssa Ray, 22, cross the stage this weekend with 4,300 other UI graduates, the parents will realize a dream they once thought impossible. Along with a little déjà vu.

Both Steve and Stephanie Ray crossed the same UI stage as undergraduates in the 1970s and stuck around to pursue graduate degrees — Steve in the UI College of Medicine and Stephanie in the UI College of Pharmacy.

Today, Steve practices internal medicine with the Genesis Health Group in Rock Island. Stephanie is a nearby pharmacist. And their babies are following in the family’s medical footsteps — earning matching degrees in chemistry and biochemistry in pursuit of careers as primary care physicians.

But their paths are diverging from that of their parents and each other — for the first time, in many ways — with Alyssa off to medical school at Southern Illinois University in Springfield, Ill., and Olivia committed to the William Beaumont School of Medicine at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Coming together to Iowa four years ago seemed a natural and comfortable transition — growing up with stories about the campus and aware of the strong hospital system and opportunities it offers.

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“I knew I wanted to go into the medical field,” Alyssa said. “So the hospital here kind of got me to come.”

The two worked together on their academic endeavors in high school and continued in the same vein when they started college — including their pursuit of research opportunities. Browsing options via the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates, Olivia came across the tissue bank opening, and they both sent emails and got in as volunteers. Right away, they suspected a personal connection.

“We were kind of joking about it in our interview,” Alyssa said.

Their bosses heightened the suspicion upon hearing the girls’ story.

“They were like, ‘This might be where we were made,’” Olivia said.

It was, of course. And that personal connection has meant more meaningful work for the two.

“It puts a different spin on my research,” Alyssa said. “My research isn’t just using a pipette and doing all these assays. It’s actually going to help people.”

Olivia said she perceives more personally the impact of her work when seeing labels on samples that come through her lab change from REI — or reproductive endocrinology and infertility — to MF, “which means they’re now a mother with a baby.”

“I would get kind of happy when I saw it change from IVF to being a mother,” she said.

In a graduation message issued to campus Thursday, UI President Bruce Harreld noted students across all fields and majors have found ways to personalize their education in hopes of understanding who they are and changing their community and world.

“A university like ours is both a reservoir for and wellspring of hope,” he wrote. “Our research is opening new frontiers of scientific and medical discovery, making breakthroughs with practical application that will have tangible, positive effects on people’s lives. Our artists, writers, and humanities scholars are showing us new ways to see the world as it is and what it might become. We are informing ourselves how we came to be here and what that means.”

The UI commencement lineup, which started Thursday with a College of Pharmacy ceremony, will hold its largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences celebration in two ceremonies Saturday. Last weekend, Iowa State graduated 5,047 students, and University of Northern Iowa had 1,616 participate in commencement.

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See the full UI commencement schedule here.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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