Staff Spotlight: Dr. Clara Smoniewski Brings Passion and Experience to Supporting Duluth Campus Researchers

Dr. Smoniewski caught the research bug early in her life and is excited to help more students discover their own paths in medical research.

When Dr. Clara Smoniewski began her role as a research professional in the Office of Research Support, Duluth campus, in August, she was entering into a position unlike any she’d ever had before. A molecular biologist by training, Dr. Smoniewski’s career had taken place primarily behind the bench, but now, she would make an impact on research in a whole new way.

“When I looked at the job description, I liked the openness of it and the ability to kind of influence what kind of research is done or how the research is done,” she recalls. “I thought that would be a really interesting place to be able to make an impact.”

Dr. Smoniewski’s role, brand new to the Office of Research Support, is responsible for supporting faculty, staff, and trainees by connecting them to resources. Fresh off of completing her own PhD dissertation in August 2023, Dr. Smoniewski has exceptional insight into the minds of fellow researchers.

“It is a lot of hard work, and you can get really burnt out,” she explains. “You have to enjoy it, but it also is kind of all-consuming. It’s important to have a balance if you can.”

Driven by curiosity and a desire to answer unanswerable questions, Dr. Smoniewski turned to research as an undergraduate at Northland College, majoring in biology. A study abroad program in Namibia opened her eyes to striking health inequities and poverty experienced globally, and she set her sights on researching neglected tropical diseases, a term coined by the United Nations to define under researched and under funded conditions associated with devastating health, social, and economic consequences.

“I walked away thinking, where do I actually want to focus my research, and how do I want to try to make a difference?”

Dr. Smoniewski received her PhD from the U of M Medical School, Duluth Campus’ Integrated Biosciences Program, where she studied under Dr. Sara Zimmer. She says that working with Dr. Zimmer was an overwhelmingly positive experience that has shaped how she sees her current role in the Office of Research Support.

“I was just blown away with how amazing of a person she was,” Dr. Smoniewski recalls. “As a PhD student, I think you can definitely get a lot of principal investigators that are big in name but not big in heart or spirit. Dr. Zimmer understood that I was a person and not just a cog in the wheel.”

Dr. Smoniewski’s role as a research professional has been ever-evolving since she took the helm six months ago, and she hopes to continue to grow the role with a human touch.

“We’re still developing exactly what it’s going to look like,” she says, “but I would love to have people feel comfortable to walk in my door and say, ‘Hey, can you help me with this?’ There are a lot of opportunities on campus for researchers, but sometimes you just want to talk to a person. Sometimes you don’t want to do it online, you just want a person to help you troubleshoot.”

Looking to the future, Dr. Smoniewski is excited to mentor medical students through the Duluth campus’ research program. Her best advice? Get as much experience as you can to narrow down your personal interests.

“Are you interested in something that is in the clinic with patients? Or are you happy looking at cells in a petri dish?” she poses. “Medical research is incredibly broad. Talk to people, do a lot of reading. Figure out where your interests lie and go from there.”