Adult student proves it is never too late to earn your college degree and find your passion

April 14, 2016

Jayashree Sarathy, Ph.D., (left) and Sally Jo Detloff (right).
Lisle, Ill. ~ About 90 million people in the United States are diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome every year. More than 10 million of these suffer from bile acid malabsorption associated diarrhea. Though it has been known for a few decades that bile acids cause diarrhea, the mechanism is unclear.

Jayashree Sarathy, Ph.D., (pictured, left) assistant professor of Biological Sciences, and her undergraduate researcher, adult "super senior" Sally Jo Detloff (pictured, right) of West Chicago, sought to unravel the cellular pathways that are involved in the secretory responses of bile acids.

Detloff found that excess accumulation of a primary bile acid made by the liver acts as a pro-inflammatory molecule and disrupts intestinal barrier function, while its counterpart, made in the large intestine by intestinal bacteria, is anti-inflammatory and protects the integrity of the intestinal lining.

Understanding the role of these bile acids in intestinal diseases could help identify a therapeutic strategy for inflammatory and diarrheal diseases.

Detloff presented her research at the Experimental Biology 2016 meeting April 2-6 in San Diego, Calif. Her trip was made possible by funding from the College of Science and the Department of Biological Sciences, and a travel grant awarded by the American Physiological Society. She was one of just two undergraduate students selected to present her research during a panel session typically reserved for doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers.

The trip was another chapter in a journey that began three years ago in Sarathy's physiology class.

"I teach many students in that class, but Sally Jo's attentiveness and participation stood out," Sarathy said. "It was obvious she loved to learn, especially about the human body. She was also my student in Advanced Cardiovascular and Respiratory Physiology. She didn't want to stop learning about how our body functions.

"The course is cross-listed with the graduate program in Clinical Exercise Physiology and is taught at a higher level," she added. "As an undergraduate student, she excelled and surpassed graduate students in the program. So I asked her if she would like to do research with me. We have worked together for two years and she has made invaluable contributions to the lab."

Detloff, who attended high school in Deerfield, was introduced to Benedictine University while pursuing an associate degree at College of DuPage (COD).

"I had a professor at COD who counseled me to move into the clinical laboratory sciences field," Detloff said. "She felt that field would provide me with a job with set hours because I am an older student and I do have a family and obligations at home. She knew that I really enjoyed chemistry and that I really wanted to be in the health profession in some way, and I think she felt that would be a really good fit.

"Benedictine has a clinical laboratory science program in conjunction with (Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Ill.), so I enrolled here to pursue that program."

Detloff has since changed majors to Health Science and will graduate this spring summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Health Science, a minor in Chemistry and more than 30 additional credit hours than required for graduation. The winner of the College of Science Academic Honors Award, conferred on a student who has distinguished themselves by positive achievements in the field of science, she plans to pursue a Master of Science in Biological Sciences with a focus on Human Anatomical Sciences at Northern Illinois University with the goal of eventually teaching Anatomy, Physiology, Embryology and Histology at the college level.

Meanwhile, she will continue to perform research in the lab at Benedictine – research that has earned local, regional (American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics) and national awards (American Physiological Society and Human Anatomy and Physiology Society) – and work with other undergraduates who plan to pursue careers in science.  

"What I enjoy most about the laboratory work is that I really love performing the experiments," Detloff said. "I like getting an experimental kit, figuring out how it works, testing the samples that I have and then seeing where we are at. Analyzing that data. That's really what I like to do. I like to do to the work."

Anatomy – the study of the human body – has become an insatiable passion for Detloff. She accompanied adjunct professor Daniel Olson, Ed.D., to Northern Illinois University and participated in the prosection of cadavers for Benedictine University and other institutions.

"We prepare the cadavers in such a way that the prevalent structures that students need to learn are readily visible," she said. "That for me is the best part of studying anatomy … the dissection process … because the best way to learn is to perform the dissection yourself."

Separating herself from Benedictine might be the hardest cut of all, however.

"Sally Jo has been a very important driving force in the lab," Sarathy said. "She has trained the next set of students who will be continuing with me next year, so she has passed on her lab skills and expertise to them. She has also been a friend and a true mentor to them. We will miss her terribly."

Detloff has also served as an ambassador for the College of Science. She has accompanied Sarathy to visit high schools and meet with other youth groups to talk about science in general and anatomy in particular.

"I really enjoyed being a tour guide for the Science Open House this year and speaking with some prospective students and their parents, being able to offer them insights from that dual role that I play, being a student at Benedictine and being a parent of a college-age child, and talking to them about the advantages of coming here to study science," Detloff said.

She has become equally passionate about selling the idea of Benedictine to the parents of her daughter's friends.

"The parents lament that their children are going far away for school, and I ask, 'Have you looked at Benedictine?' she said. "'It has such a strong science program. They have class sizes that allow you to really know your professors.'"

Making an impression on her professor certainly led to a rewarding academic career – and a future with unlimited potential – for one bright "super senior."


Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2015.

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