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Nicky Haverland in 2006, right after winning the East Otter Tail County Fair Demolition Derby. Derbying ran in the family, she said, and she learned how to build a car when she was just a teenager. She competed for a few years, winning two derbies and finishing third and fourth in two others. Submitted photo

Former Miss Perham on her way to a Ph.D. in biomedical research

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Remember Nicky Haverland, the 2005 Miss Perham who wasn’t afraid to get her crown dirty at demo derbies?

Well today, the pageant winner has traded her glamorous gowns for a white lab coat. Next month, she’ll be triumphantly holding up her Ph.D. in biomedical research, the same way she used to hold up her derby trophies after hard-fought wins.

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 Since graduating from Perham High School in 2004, Nicky has kept herself busy with her characteristically diverse array of interests. She’s competed at more pageants – even serving as Miss Nebraska in 2011 – immersed herself in her scientific research, and traveled the globe.

After graduating from Minnesota State University in Moorhead in 2009 with a double major in biology and chemistry, she went on to graduate school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. She’s currently a fifth year grad student fellow, researching viruses and their impact on the human immune system.

In recent years, Nicky has traveled the globe to present her findings to peers, participating in conferences across the U.S. as well as in China, Japan, Italy, Australia and other foreign countries, where she’s had coffee with some of the biggest names in her field, including a Nobel Laureate.

In an email interview with the Focus, Nicky explained that she’s in the field of proteomics, or the study of proteins as a collective unit within a living organism.

“I enjoy everything about my research,” she wrote. “My role is kind of like an engineer that takes things apart, figures out how something works, tweaks something in hope that it will improve its function, and tests it.”

In her studies, Nicky infects immune cells with a virus, analyzing what happens next at the protein level. The ultimate hope of her and her colleagues is to find and target proteins that change after being infected, so scientists can figure out how to shut down the viral process.

If they can do that, she wrote, then “Ta-da! No more virus!”

The work could ultimately shed new light on how to stop the process that culminates in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Some days, Nicky spends her time in a bio-containment facility, wearing a Tyvek suit while working with the active virus. Other days, she’s in the lab, working with proteins and “fancy machines” like mass spectrometers, she said. Most days, though, are spent in front of a computer, analyzing data, reading field literature and writing about her research.

Nicky is an HIV-1 researcher, studying the virus that leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

“For me, there is no stigma,” she said. “In science, HIV-1 is a virus just like influenza, and all viruses deserve research.”

Nicky’s love of science started when she was just a little girl. Her dad, Jeff Haverland, bought her a crystal growing kit when she was seven or eight years old, she said, and even though that experiment turned out to be “a huge flop,” she still had a lot of fun with it, and it taught her that science is “just as much about the successes as it is learning from the failures.”

In high school, she was increasingly drawn to science through her involvement in Perham Science Research, her own innate interest, and the support and encouragement of her teachers and parents, Jeff and Pam Haverland and Dan and Sue Schroeder.

By the time Nicky was finishing up her undergraduate studies in Moorhead, she had discovered the field of proteomics, and was interested in pursuing it further.

“It really is a big picture science,” she wrote. “We’re not looking at one pesky protein, we’re looking at all of them and how they interact with one another.”

Because of this broader perspective, she added, “there is a better chance to discover something new.”

Over the last few years, Nicky has become a dedicated researcher. She’s also been active in student government at the University of Nebraska, and was elected president of the graduate students at the Medical Center department she works for – Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience.

Outside of school, she found a way to bring her love of science to the masses, in an unexpected way – through pageants.

After her Miss Perham win in 2005, Nicky competed in pageants on and off until she turned 24, vying for the North Dakota title of Miss Fort Abercrombie, as well as Miss North Dakota, where she finished in the top 10 in 2008. With the platform of “Grab Life by the Protons: Encouraging Science Education,” she won the title of Miss Douglas County in 2009, and finished third runner-up at the Miss Nebraska pageant.

When that year’s Miss Nebraska, Teresa Scanlan, went on to become Miss America, the first and second runner-ups declined to take over the position, and Nicky became the new titleholder.

“It was awesome,” she wrote of the experience. “No stress that comes with competing for Miss America and my only focus was on spreading my message. I traveled over 6,000 miles to visit schools all across Nebraska and talk about science and judge science fairs... For me, pageantry ended up being so much more than the pageant itself. It was an opportunity to share what I loved: science.”

She hasn’t returned to the pageant stage since then, opting instead to focus on her research, travels and other interests. She’s gotten into brewing her own beer, for example, and spends a fair amount of time fixing up her 100-year-old home in Omaha. She loves interior design, she said, as well as gardening and landscaping.

A former member of the Perham girls cross country team, Nicky has recently taken up running again, after a brief hiatus, and she’s learning to play the piano.

Two and half years ago, she started dating Blaine Hardy, the pitcher for the Toledo Mud Hens, the AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. She also started a science blog, www.misfitscientist. wordpress.com, in hopes of relaying science discoveries and concepts to the general public.

Right now, she’s applying for post-doctoral jobs, the next required step in her development as an independent researcher.

“I don’t know where I’ll end up or what I will end up doing,” she wrote, “but I do know that I’ll forever be in science.”

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Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson (formerly Nitke) came to the Perham Focus after several years as the Education and Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Herald-Review of Grand Rapids, Minn. She lives in rural Ottertail with her husband, Dan, and their spunky yellow lab, Louisa.
(218) 346-5900 x228
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