By AnneMarie Hunter
Perhaps it was swimming with her brothers in the frosty waters of St. Mary Lake at Glacier National Park. Or, picking huckleberries along the park’s trails.
Maybe it was hiking in Shenandoah National Park while her father, Pete, taught her about ecosystems along the way.
It could have been playing hide and seek in the world’s tallest trees at Sequoia National Park. Or, catching sight of mountain goats and big horn sheep in Logan Pass.
“All of those experiences came together so I ended up where I needed to be,” said Christi Webster, bioengineering major in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and Honors College student (’22).
As a child, Webster experienced, firsthand, the beauty and fragility of America’s most spectacular natural spaces. Yellowstone, Sequoia, Glacier and Denali National Parks were each home for a time.
“My parents worked for the National Park Service, so I always lived near, or in, national parks,” she said. “My brothers and I were introduced to nature early and my parents shared their passion for the environment and these amazing places.
“When my dad took us backpacking, he’d say, ‘This is how you take care of the environment properly and how you help out.’”
Growing up in national parks, Webster experienced some of the world’s finest natural classrooms.
“Christi has always been inquisitive about nature,” said her mother, Dawn. “As a little girl, she’d put on her favorite dress and head outside to play in the mud, climb rocks, and watch bugs and other animals.”
Although these experiences were extraordinary, the family had to relocate frequently.
“One of the big obstacles in Christi’s life was our many moves,” Dawn said. “It’s never easy to leave your friends behind and start over again, but she always kept a positive, adventurous attitude wherever we went.”
Webster has always chosen positive.
“I learned how to adapt to different situations,” she said. “My parents supported our goals and worked very hard to provide us opportunities to explore our interests.”
A COMMITMENT TO THE EARTH
With these opportunities, Webster also learned about the responsibility that comes with protecting the planet.
Today, she brings both joy and insightful respect for the environment to her roles as student, mentor, and leader at WSU. Her childhood also informs future contributions she would like to make through the field of bioengineering. That career choice was initially inspired in high school.
“I never understood what engineering was or even considered it as a potential career until my mom encouraged me to attend summer camp at the University of Wyoming,” she said. “I had a robotics class and a biomaterials course there and loved the topics and hands-on learning experience.
“After the camp, I wanted to get into biomaterials and found bioengineering fit those subjects, so here I am now.”
A degree that incorporates multiple engineering disciplines with biological systems, bioengineering opens the door to a wide spectrum of careers.
“My favorite thing about WSU’s bioengineering program is the flexibility to explore different avenues and find the path that best fits your interests,” Webster said.
A FOCUS ON RESEARCH
During her freshman year, Webster began undergraduate research with Haluk Beyenal, professor in the Voiland School.
“This experience kickstarted my research career because I had no lab experience and didn’t even know how to use a pipette.”
In Dr. Beyenal’s biofilm lab, Webster developed an interest in plant pathology. Her research focused on isolating Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus (Ca. L asiaticus), the causing agent to citrus greening disease. Devastating and global in scale, this disease affects the citrus tree’s ability to take in nutrients and results in small, unripe fruit.
“Christi’s research is critically vital for citrus growers,” said Beyenal. “Throughout the project, she experienced many roadblocks, from new method development to expired machine calibrations. She was determined to overcome these challenges and, more importantly, she managed to grow mixed culture biofilms of CLas in the laboratory setting, which was impossible before.
“Christi is very persistent and works until she gets things done. She’s one of the exceptional undergraduate students I have.”
Webster’s father watched that perseverance unfold during her childhood.
“At a young age, Christi was very good at just about everything she tried,” Pete said. “As she got older, some things weren’t as naturally easy, but instead of giving in she always focused harder. This is where her incredible work ethic and perseverance come from.”
Today, Webster works through challenges to achieve goals that focus on the environment and its sustainability for people.
“Growing up, I met a lot of farmers and saw how plant disease impacted them,” she said. “I believe sustainable agriculture is critical for the health of the planet and will also help improve security for people.”
Last summer, Webster studied in Germany on a prestigious DAAD/RISE fellowship. During her internship at the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Research (ZALF), she gained new insights about bringing her vision to fruition.
“In Germany, I saw how science and research are integrated and directly relate to farmers,” she said. “I want to work with people to create that kind of connection between academia and agriculture in the United States.”
At WSU, Webster has also cultivated deep connections to her colleagues and peers.
Her high school summer camp experience kindled not only a passion for bioengineering, but a desire to help others overcome challenges and achieve their dreams. This aspiration was born from her own struggles and the difference encouragement made during those times.
“Building a robot at the camp was fun and I enjoyed created something I could make work, but I struggled a lot with it,” she said. “But I also had help and it was a collaborative experience.”
Then, as a freshman, she struggled finding her place at WSU.
“I was nervous, so I joined an organization, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE),” she said. “They helped me grow and feel supported. I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of family and friends.
In her commitment to others, Webster has been a Voiland College peer mentor and a Honors College facilitator. As a facilitator, she leads a freshman course that helps incoming students adjust to college life and build a sense of community. During the past two years, she served as Vice President of WSU’s section of SWE and is a Big SWEster.
“I want to be a support for others, especially if they haven’t had that in their family like I did,” she said. “I like working with people and want to help them see they can succeed despite failures.”
Webster’s parents have witnessed their daughter’s generous support of others.
“Christi’s always cared for others and has a big open heart,” said Dawn. “She has a passion for all living things.”
“It’s been a joy to watch Christi have such a meaningful, lasting impact with her friends, teachers, and communities as a whole,” Pete added.
SCHOLARSHIPS AND THE FUTURE
Scholarships have been a significant part of Webster’s journey at WSU. She has received the Scott and Linda Carson Undergraduate Research Excellence Award, the WSU Research Scholar Award and many others. In March, she was recognized with a Crimson Award at the 2021 WSU Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SURCA).
“Scholarships have greatly reduced the financial impact of attending university,” she said. “They ensure I can put my time and energy towards undergraduate research and the Society of Women Engineers. These activities have helped me grow as a person and as a researcher at WSU.”
Going forward, this visionary student plans to further her research on plant pathology and sustainable agriculture.