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Elizaveta Zhivaya in a lab wearing a lab coat holding a pipette.

From architecture to biochemistry: ‘Life is too short to do something you don’t like.’

By Grace Peterman

As a kid, Elizaveta Zhivaya excelled at drawing. But these days, she'd rather be pipetting.

A few years ago, Elizaveta Zhivaya was working on her bachelor’s degree in architecture at the Moscow Architectural Institute in Russia when she had an epiphany. She didn’t enjoy the subject.

Zhivaya dropped out of her program and started teaching herself science from videos online, returning to her childhood interests. “I don’t regret quitting,” she said. “Life is too short to do something you don’t like.”

For Zhivaya, making the decision to pursue science meant stepping into ownership of her own life. Her parents had encouraged her to study architecture because she excelled at drawing and following along with that was the path of least resistance. Yet, her heart wasn’t in it. She experienced a period of depression and anxiety over what to do with her life, before coming to an existential revelation: “The reality is that one day I’m going to die, it’s not imaginary it’s real, it’s a very refreshing thought for me.”

Reconnecting with science

Zhivaya explained that part of the reason it took her some time to come back to science was the lack of encouragement in her formative years. Growing up, she was fascinated by black holes, but she thought she wouldn’t be smart enough to study astrophysics because of the math involved.

In high school, she enjoyed chemistry, but she got the impression her teacher didn’t think she was smart enough for that either. “She didn’t explicitly say so, but the experience I got with her made me think I’m not capable of doing chemistry,” said Zhivaya.

After that early experience, “It took me five years to understand that maybe I am capable,” she said.

Clearly, Zhivaya is much more than just capable of science — she excels at it. In her time at Oregon State, the Biochemistry and Biophysics graduate has completed research through the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts (URSA) Engage and Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Science programs. URSA allows first- and second-year and transfer students from any college to receive funding for research and present their work, while SURE, exclusive to the College of Science, allows students of any year to get paid to do full-time research over the summer with faculty from any college.

Zhivaya completed both programs under the mentorship of Maude David, assistant professor of microbiology. The David Lab studies gut-brain interactions and aims to unravel how the gut microbiota can impact our behavior, specifically in autism spectrum disorder and anxiety disorders. Zhivaya studies these interactions using a mouse model, feeding mice specific compounds and analyzing how mouse behavior and biology are affected.

One of the projects Zhivaya is currently involved in aims elucidate the exact mechanisms by which the brain and gut talk to each other. “The interaction between specific bacterial taxa and specialized cells dispersed within the gut epithelial layer was proposed to be this bridge,” said Zhivaya. “These specific cells within the lining of the gut are capable of forming synapse-like connections with the vagus nerve, one of the cranial nerves.”

The next phase of this project will use the whole-cell patchclamp recording method to determine the vagus nerve neurons’ response to bacteria binding to the gut cells. This electrophysiological technique allows the study of the electrical properties of a substantial part of a neuron.

David and the graduate students in the lab have been supportive and encouraging to Zhivaya’s development as a scientist. “Maude definitely helped me a lot. She would correct all my grad school applications and personal statements and help me if I didn’t understand anything. Also Maude is simply a very inspiring person,” said Zhivaya. “The Ph.D. students would give me some freedom to explore and try my ideas. Most of the time, they wouldn’t work, but when they did, I experienced an amazing feeling of fulfillment.”

Enthusiastic about continuing her research trajectory, Zhivaya will head to Washington State University next year to start a Ph.D. in neuroscience. She plans to do four lab rotations before deciding which project she wants to contribute to. “It’s going to be fun,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to getting into some neuroscience.”

Elizaveta Zhivaya standing outside with green plants behind her.

Moving to Corvallis from Moscow, Russia, Zhivaya was impressed by the town's lush nature: "the biggest trees I've ever seen!"

The international student experience

Coming from Russia, Zhivaya went through the INTO program, an initiative that helps international students adjust to academic life abroad. She was torn between Oregon State and Colorado State because they are both close to the mountains she loves. Corvallis won out: “I like that it’s a small town, I enjoy being able to ride my bike anywhere and I like that trails are very accessible,” she said.

Zhivaya said many people have asked whether she experienced culture shock coming to the US from Russia, but she says she didn’t at all. “Moscow is literally a normal European city,” she said, plus she had visited the US with her family as a teenager. “For me, it was moving to a smaller town that was the big shock,” she said. There are 12 million people in Moscow, while Corvallis has around 60,000.

Being an international student has had some challenges though. Zhivaya was in the middle of her research with SURE when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Due to the unprecedented amount of uncertainty at the time, Zhivaya moved back to Russia to be with her family. For almost a year, all of the lab activities she had been doing were inaccessible to her. “But I had to adapt, survival of the fittest student and everything,” she said. “Instead of the wet lab activities, I learned how to work in R Studio, coding. When I returned, we started our projects.”

Zhivaya is excited about going into her Ph.D. with a fresh perspective on research that blends both her innate love of science with a desire to apply it for the common good.

“My primary motivation was my curiosity. I want to know how this and that works,” Zhivaya said. “But throughout four years at OSU, probably due to being surrounded by amazing and driven people, I’ve developed more of an altruistic view of science. I added a new layer to my perspective and now I see science as a tool to impact people’s lives, not only as a way to satisfy my curiosity. I believe that even the fundamental research will put this small piece of knowledge into the collection of knowledge we already have and make a difference.”