ARCS Illinois Scholar Rasa Valiauga's work ethic and determination were shaped by her mother's example and Rasa's family's experience of immigrating to the United States when Rasa was nine years old.
She and her mother, Jadvyga Valiauga, have achieved success here with hard work.
Rasa is starting her fifth year on the rigorous path for her MD/PhD at Loyola Stritch School of Medicine. Her dissertation seeks to uncover diet's role in Alzheimer's disease.
Leaving Lithuania as a child for this "vast land filled with diversity, I began to question where I fit in this big new world," Rasa says. Her inner answer to the question continues today, she says. "I believe it is our responsibility to contribute to the community and improve the world for subsequent generations."
"As a first-generation, low-income student, I have had to seek sources of mentorship outside of my family," Rasa continues. "I have had to be resourceful since, growing up, my family lacked the connections and resources to help me achieve my goals. I have had to stay determined, motivated, and adjust course," she says. "All of these traits I inherited from my mother."
Rasa recognizes that her mother arrived in the US with three children and a non-transferable degree and "had to be creative to keep us clothed, fed, with a warm bed to sleep in." Her father was a mechanic, so the language difference was easier for him to overcome at work, although not the pay difference.
Jadvyga, who once worked in a kitchen, is now a successful business owner, an ARCS member, and on the board for the Illinois Chapter. "My mom did not shape me into who I am today by her words, but through her actions," Rasa says.
"My mom never pushed this path of higher education on me," Rasa says. "I am not even sure she was aware such a degree even existed. But she was always supportive, encouraging, and there when I needed her."
Rasa's dissertation focuses on how diet composition influences neuroinflammation, using a novel biosensor mouse model developed to measure inflammation in the living animal. "Our laboratory has developed a caspase-1 biosensor mouse model, which allows us to visualize the activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome in living animals. This allows me to track changes in peripheral and central inflammation over time and to monitor the progression of Alzheimer's disease as the rodent diet is modified," Rasa explains.
She explains that she expected the ARCS scholar award "to have a substantial impact on my livelihood, but what I could not anticipate was the community that becoming an ARCS Scholar has allowed me to join. I was welcomed by incredible women leaders who are strong, humble, and kind. It means the world to me that, after hearing about my experience with ARCS, my mom decided to become a member," she says. "I look forward to the day the two of us can work together to aid this wonderful organization's mission."