Beginning as a glass-washer at the Life Sciences Institute in 2007, Ulla Lilienthal never would have guessed that 10 years later she would work as a lab manager in LSI.

“If I would have planned this, it never would have happened,” said Lilienthal, senior research laboratory technician in Research Associate Professor Melanie Ohi’s lab.

Lilienthal learned of her love of science late in her academic career. She grew up in Sweden and attended a competitive college preparatory school to prepare for medical school, though the school didn’t teach chemistry or biology.

Afterward, she took a job as a nanny for a family in Alexandria, Virginia. She received a scholarship to Kutztown University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in microbiology. She then conducted work toward a Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Maryland-College Park, became a stay-at-home mom for 15 years and worked as a high school substitute science teacher.

Ulla Lilienthal started working at U-M as a dishwasher at the Life Sciences Institute. Ten years and a master’s degree later, she’s a lab manager at LSI. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

After a divorce, Lilienthal was drawn back to science and realized she was several decades behind contemporary scientific knowledge.

Caring for her three children alone, “we were left penniless. Everything was gone.” She applied to more than 80 jobs at the University of Michigan before getting a dishwashing position at the LSI.

“You are way overqualified,” the hiring manager told her.

“That’s fine,” Lilienthal responded.

She worked hard, and it was quickly recognized. “Dishwashing is not glamorous, but if you do your best people will notice, it doesn’t matter what it is,” she said. With support from the LSI, she climbed up the ranks.

She still yearned to complete a graduate degree, but ran into roadblocks. “I could have stopped there, but I am a very determined person. It spurred me on.”

She applied to a new LSI opening as lab manager, with the caveat that she be allowed to concurrently work toward a master’s degree. The principal investigator consented, and after speaking with Anna Mapp, the head of the Chemical Biology Program, Lilienthal arranged to finish a master’s degree in cancer chemical biology at her own pace, instead of the customary one year, to allow her to continue working.

While she was in the master’s program, her lab manager position was responsible for day-to-day operations, including OSHA safety training, repair of equipment and running her own projects.

“Taking classes as a non-traditional student, you always have this nagging doubt, ‘Am I good enough? Do I know enough?’ (Beginning the degree) was so empowering. I just thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this.'” She finished the degree last spring.

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“Being post-children and with all the changes in my life, (graduating) has made me feel 20 years younger. Walking into Hill Auditorium — it was simply the coolest. I just thought, ‘I did it, I did it!'”

Two months after receiving her degree, Lilienthal transitioned into a new position as lab manager in LSI. In her new role, she analyzes negative stain samples on the T12 microscope and conducts more science projects that require independent analysis. She said she is excited to learn to use the lab’s cryo-electron microscopy, a cutting-edge disciplinary advancement that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Lilienthal says the degree gives her the freedom to go anywhere. More importantly, she wants to show that hope and hard work pay off.

“I want people to know there is a way out. You’re not too old, you’re not worthless. If you have hope, you can do this.”