Opportunity taken: Mitchell High School’s Korzan bound for Princeton to pursue medical career
Science, speech standout to conduct research into fight against cancer
MITCHELL — Alexis Korzan knows the value of seizing opportunity.
The Mitchell High School senior, who will graduate along with the rest of the Class of 2023 Sunday afternoon at the Corn Palace, has been doing that throughout her high school career. She has taken advantage of both academic and athletic programs during her teenage years, and even set out on a personal health research project that earned her a government patent for her work.
All those opportunities taken have led her to the end of her time in high school and the beginning of her college career. Now she has another opportunity: Attending Princeton University in New Jersey on a full ride scholarship to study molecular biology on a pre-medicine track. She was accepted to the Ivy League university in December.
“I was really shocked,” Korzan told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “When I matched with Princeton it was a huge surprise to both me and my family. It covers room, board, tuition, travel and all these other additional expenses, so it’s a really great opportunity.”
Korzan, 18, admits she had a couple of safety schools in mind in case the research university declined her application, but was more than pleased to accept an invitation to study at the prestigious institution. It will be a chance to pursue a long running interest in health care, a quest that was inspired by her father Mathias’ fight against acute myeloid leukemia.
Growing up, she spent a good portion of her life thinking about medicine and helping people. Korzan estimates that she has spent about 5% of her life in hospitals during the years her father was receiving chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Though not necessarily an ideal place to spend one’s youthful days, Korzan again focused on the opportunity in front of her. She saw the work being done by the professionals at the Mayo Clinic and found it inspiring.
“I genuinely care about helping other people around me in my community who don’t have as much access to health care. When my dad was diagnosed they couldn’t help him here in Mitchell. We had to travel to Rochester to get that proper health care treatment,” Korzan said. “And he’s alive to this day and now healthy.”
She hopes she can make a difference in that kind of health care availability through her work in college and beyond. She focused on biology classes at Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy, spent time interning at Avera Grassland Diagnostics and even spearheaded a backyard research project. She is a member of Health Occupations Students of America.
She started More Life Genomics in an effort to advance her own research into horizontal gene transfer, which is a transfer of genetic material of DNA across species. The research involved gathering 10 pounds of leaves from hackberry trees in her neighborhood, which she then sent away to the South Dakota State University Plant Diagnostic Laboratory for testing.
“I got some pretty strange looks from my parents’ neighbors,” Korzan said.
Her work resulted in her filing for a provisional patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for ANKH-22, which is a unique DNA transfer methodology for killing cancer cells through a naturally occurring phenomenon in plant genes, she said.
Princeton will be a perfect place to advance that research. There she will have access to scientific minds and facilities. She already has a scientific adviser at the school for the More Life Genomics project, she said.
“I will have the opportunity to immediately advance my research on horizontal gene transfer at Princeton with world-renowned genomics experts, have access to funding and grants and work closely with the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland,” Korzan said. “When somebody you love is desperately ill, you’re motivated to think outside the box and do absolutely anything and everything to give them more life. This genomics research is my purpose. My mission in life.”
She gives a great deal of credit to teachers like Clayton Gropper and Tricia Neugebauer at MCTEA for giving her the foundation necessary to pursue her dreams. And she has taken part in other endeavors while at Mitchell High. She played volleyball and ran track and field until her senior year, when she decided to focus more on academics.
It has paid off — out of about 191 graduating seniors listed in Sunday's graduation program, she is one of 20 listed as receiving highest honors in scholarship and a 4.0 grade point average.
She also is a highly regarded speech and debate team member at the school. She serves as team captain this year, and she will be taking part in a national debate competition in June in Phoenix, Arizona.
Along with her science studies, speech and debate has been a highly positive experience. Being able to communicate thoughts and opinions clearly is beneficial in many facets of life, including the world of scientific research. She encouraged underclassmen who may not have considered speech and debate to do so.
“Speech and debate has been completely transformational for me. It’s really taught me how to express my opinions and views in a formal manner and it’s given me more confidence to be able to stand in front of people and talk out loud,” Korzan said.
Madi Miller, the speech and debate coach at Mitchell High School, said she has seen Korzan blossom over the course of her time in high school, and her work in speech and debate is reflective of that.
“When she came in as a freshman, she was so timid and so quiet. I think the first speech she ever gave was 20 seconds long and then she sat down,” Miller chuckled. “And I thought we had our work cut out for us.”
Miller said Korzan’s growth in her class is indicative of the success she’s had throughout her high school days. Her voice hitches when talking about Korzan, and she has to pull out some gentle teasing to hold back the tears.
“She is one of the kindest students I ever had. She’s always helping out the younger kids and mentoring them, and I know her future is bright, but I do wish I could keep her here forever,” Miller said. “Princeton. I guess Princeton is fine. I can’t wait to see where she goes (in life), but it’s sad (to see her leave).”
Joe Childs, the incoming superintendent for the Mitchell School District and principal of Mitchell High School during Korzan’s time at the school, also had high praise for the student.
“Alexis has been a remarkable leader at Mitchell High School. She is active in her school and community and she is an accomplished student. Holding top academic honors and participating in school activities both require time and effort. Alexis is able to excel at both simultaneously," Childs said. "In addition to that, she goes on to showcase her leadership skills as the team captain for the school varsity speech and debate team, as a contributing member of our International Club, our Pen Pals Club, and a member of National Honor Society. Alexis isn’t just impressive, she is awe-inspiring.”
The next phase of Korzan’s life will begin Sunday, when she walks across the stage to receive her diploma. As one of the two student commencement speakers, she will deliver her address, “No Opportunity Wasted,” to those in attendance. Fellow senior Keatyn Wede will also deliver an address titled “Don’t Be Strangers.”
“It’s definitely a great honor to receive my diploma on stage and I can’t wait for them to call my name,” Korzan said.
After graduation, the Class of 2023 will begin to drift apart, as high school classes tend to do. Korzan said it is an exciting time, if a little bittersweet. Mitchell has been a great place for her and her family, and despite the important work she will be doing at Princeton, she said she would make time to come home to visit during her breaks.
That will likely include her beloved walks by Dry Run Creek near her home, or possibly even carting her siblings around to the swimming pool or to their friends’ houses in her role as big sister. She might take in a John Grisham novel or two.
But her focus will remain on fighting cancer with her research, hopefully bringing new and better treatments for patients suffering from the disease. She saw what scientific research did for her father, now she wants to improve upon that research and make life better for patients around the world.
It’s another opportunity she has been given, and she’s not going to waste it, she said.
The Mitchell High School graduation ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 21 at the Corn Palace in Mitchell.