Biology Students Explore Faith and Science Through Research into Labor-Inducing Herbal Remedies

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Jennifer Berger ’07 helped spark a string of research projects at Bethel into herbal remedies used to induce labor. After more than a decade, the research continues to provide real-world experience for biology majors seeking medical careers—and it offers a chance to appreciate God’s creativity.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

April 22, 2019 | Noon

Teresa DeGolier, Clayton Neuenschwander ’19, and Abby Puk ’19

Abby Puk ’19 and Clayton Neuenschwander ’19 worked with Professor of Biology Teresa DeGolier to research herbal remedies used by midwives to induce labor.

“God gave me the words,” says Jennifer Berger, D.O. ’07.

As doctors prepared to pull a dying infant off life support, they asked the child’s parents if they wanted to pray. When they didn’t know what to say, Berger, then a resident who had bonded with the family, stepped in. “We thank God for the gift of this beautiful baby,” she recalls praying. “Even though we only had 18 days to spend with her, we thank you for the gift of her and ask God to clutch her in the gift of His loving arms and that we’ll be united in His love.”

After the family embraced and thanked her, Berger knew she’d found a home for her career as a doctor of osteopathic medicine: the newborn intensive care unit (NICU). “I felt like the NICU was where I could most likely bring my faith and my love of science and bring it most together,” she says.

While Berger says Bethel’s Department of Biology prepared her for the rigors of medical school, she also credits professors like Professor of Biology Teresa DeGolier for showing her how to blend her faith with her life and work—something that’s proved vital as she cares for premature babies. But Berger also left a legacy that continues to help students prepare for life after Bethel.

Jennifer Berger ’07 and Professor of Biology Teresa DeGolier

Jennifer Berger ’07 says Bethel and Professor of Biology Teresa DeGolier were instrumental in her becoming a doctor of osteopathic medicine who cares for premature babies. But Berger left her own legacy at Bethel, as biology students continue following her lead in researching herbal remedies used by midwives to induce labor.

A Research Legacy

Berger felt intimidated in her first biology class after transferring to Bethel in 2004. A sophomore, Berger remembers looking at the upperclassmen in her class—including one who’d been published and received accolades—and feared she’d never reach that level.

The following school year, Berger brought an idea for her biology research project to DeGolier. As Berger describes it, she wanted to explore a simple question: Is there scientific evidence to support the use of herbal remedies by midwives to induce labor? With DeGolier’s mentorship, Berger tested the effects of the herb blue cohosh on tissue in a muscle bath that DeGolier had used to study intestinal tissues. That simple question led to significant results. “Much to my delight, and actually surprise, that herbal created a very forceful contraction in uterine tissue,” DeGolier says.

Berger presented her research in Minnesota and Iowa, receiving several awards and recognitions, and DeGolier and Berger published their research in BIOS, the Beta Beta Beta Biological Society's journal. The process boosted Berger’s confidence.

But that was just the beginning of the story. Berger’s initial study sparked several related research projects by other Bethel students regarding herbal remedies used by midwives as DeGolier and her students strive to learn more. Berger is excited the research has continued. “It’s amazing how God can take that and use it,” she says.

Since the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate herbal supplements in the U.S., they haven’t been researched as thoroughly as pharmaceutical drugs. However, people are becoming more interested in alternative medicines. DeGolier continues to publish research co-written with her research students, and she’s found much interest in Eastern countries, where herbal remedies are more common. “It opened up just a plethora of projects for students,” DeGolier says.

Through the remedies, students can study a broad number of compounds or components, and they can complete a research project in one semester.

Abby Puk ’19 and Clayton Neuenschwander ’19 are continuing the same line of research. Puk, a biology major and chemistry minor who wants to be a physician’s assistant, studied a genus of plants called Angelica, a Chinese herb. Neuenschwander, a biology major and chemistry minor who plans to attend medical school, tested herbal agents within a remedy used by midwives. In lab tests last year, each found that their agents caused contractions.

Though each met Bethel’s research requirements, Neuenschwander and Puk are continuing to work to study their results and write papers with the goal of publishing in a journal with DeGolier. Like Berger, both planned to present their research at symposiums this spring.

Future students can continue to explore the specific compounds within the remedies’ ingredients, and Puk says more testing is needed to know what other effects herbal compounds have on the entire body. DeGolier doesn’t recommend using such remedies outside of advice from a doctor or midwife. But like Berger, Neuenschwander and Puk are pleased the research can continue. “It’s exciting that future Bethel students can take what my findings were and then use that as a catalyst for their own research,” Puk says.

Abby Puk ’19

Abby Puk ’19, a biology major and chemistry minor who wants to become a physician’s assistant, studies a genus of plants called Angelica, a Chinese herb used by midwives to induce labor.

Confidence as a Scientist

Similar to Berger, the experience boosted Puk and Neuenschwander’s confidence. After studying the work of others at Bethel, research helped Puk feel like a part of the scientific community as she applied what she’s learned. “It just really helped to improve my confidence as a scientist,” she says. The process teaches students to conduct research, experience the trial error, and use critical thinking to make decisions, which Neuenschwander says they’ll need to do in their careers. “You’re going to be an individual who needs to make decisions eventually,” says Neuenschwander, who adds it gave him experience utilizing medical literature and academic research.

For DeGolier, the research is about students, about giving them experience and tools for success. When Berger applied for medical school, she discussed her research as her greatest accomplishment. As Berger plans to start a job at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital this summer, she says Bethel prepared her for the rigors of medical school, which many compare to drinking from a firehose. “Research definitely gave me the confidence that I have something that I can contribute and something that shows too that I’m willing to work hard to get the results,” Berger says. “And it sort of opened the door for a lot of things in my life.”

Clayton Neuenschwander ’19

Clayton Neuenschwander ’19, a biology major and chemistry minor who wants to become a physician, tested herbal agents that make up a remedy used by midwives to induce labor. In lab tests last year, each found that their agents caused contractions.

God’s Creative Characteristics

Berger says she loves caring for premature babies and their families because it allows her to “glimpse of God's miracles in the midst of Him creating them.” As she continues her work, which can be difficult, she relies on the support of her family and her faith in challenging times. “I definitely need Him every day,” she says.

Berger credits her Bethel professors for providing a blueprint for how to blend faith into day-to-day life. Berger often spends the few moments when she uses hand sanitizer before entering a room to pray, and she wears a cross, in part to show families they can approach her or ask for prayers.

Faith permeates the discussions and work each day in the biology department, as professors strive to teach students to be stewards of all creation. “Understanding the human body is an act of honoring God’s creativity,” DeGolier says.

Puk says professors encourage her to explore her faith as she digs into questions about the natural world. Through her classes and research, she’s discovered the complexities of the body and in nature. “It’s revealed so much about who God is as creator,” Puk says.

As students prepare for their next steps, Berger recommends they continue relying on their faith, as she says God led her into pediatrics. She tells students to trust where God leads them. Enjoy the journey, she says, rather than getting bogged down worrying about where you’re supposed to be. “Be open to where God leads you,” she says. “It may not be where you want to go or where you thought you would end up, but I think everything always works out for a reason.”

“Trust God and it will all work out,” she adds.

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