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SRIA Scholars Focus on Summertime Research

Hannah Miller
Graduate Assistant, School of Natural Science and Mathematics

Louise Villangca and Christine McCauslin

Senior biology major and computer science minor Louise Villangca’s research project proposal not only earned her the SRIA experience, but also recognition as the recipient of the Michael Guckavan Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Excellence Award. She and Dean of Natural Science and Mathematics Christine McCauslin, Ph.D. pose with the award.

Five Student Research Internship Award (SRIA) scholars worked one on one with faculty mentors over the summer to gain lab experience and further develop their research skills. The SRIA students are chosen for this competitive research award based on the research proposals submitted to Dean of Natural Science and Mathematics Christine McCauslin, Ph.D.

Despite challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic, the student scholars pursued their proposed projects and build upon important research skills that will last a lifetime.

Louise Villangca

“MET Receptor Pathways,” with faculty mentor Susan Mertins, Ph.D.

Senior biology major and computer science minor Louise Villangca’s research project proposal not only earned her the SRIA experience, but also recognition as the recipient of the Michael Guckavan Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Excellence Award.  This distinction is given to the SRIA applicant with the best interdisciplinary research proposal.  As part of this special award, she received a $1,000 travel stipend to attend an academic conference of her choice.

Villangca described the importance of her research: “MET receptors are well studied as they play a significant role in a number of different cancer pathologies, including but not limited to, renal and colon cancer. It is of interest to determine how MET is disinhibited in comparison to other tyrosine kinase receptors.”

“This project evaluated the effect of adaptor binding to the MET receptor. Personally, I felt growth as a scientist as I began to read through documents and sort through various data files to retrieve information that was essential in understanding what tyrosines were related to MET,” Villangca said. “In addition, through this work, I was able to get the experience of being able to do things on my own under the guidance of my mentor who often did daily meetings to discuss goals we set for ourselves. Although I was unable to finish the code, I successfully plotted out the predicted pathways for each tyrosine.”

In reflecting on her SRIA experience, Villangca explained that she had to quickly learn the importance of patience “especially in terms of research, as things may not always go in the expected direction.”

 “Additionally, through this program I was able to feel comfortable reading scientific articles and being able to filter out information that is necessary for my topic. The opportunity to combine the use of biology, a strong interest I have, and the use of programming to simulate the MET receptor pathways has brought my attention to the various possibilities that can be done regarding the subject of medicine and computer science,” she said.

Sofia Allison

“Zinc Complexes as Possible Photoredox Catalysts,” with faculty mentor Isaac Mills, Ph.D.

sofia-allison-sria-pic-in-text.jpg“I am very glad to have had the opportunity to participate in SRIA this past summer,” said sophomore Sofia Allison, a chemistry, biology and biochemistry triple major. “The research was interesting to me, and I was able to develop invaluable laboratory and interpersonal skills while researching. Having research experience as a sophomore will help me to be more competitive in applying to more internship opportunities in the coming years.”

The laboratory equipment experience and research techniques Allison learned have already helped her with her advanced classes. “They also help me to better understand the research of others, which is interesting. Developing interpersonal relationships and being able to talk comfortably about my research to people with varying knowledge of chemistry, was also instrumental in making my summer an incredible experience,” she elaborated. “Moving forward, I know that I can talk with professionals and scientists about their work and be comfortable in that conversation, no matter what field they research in. Finally, I found a deeper appreciation for the opportunities MSMU has for its students. I had no idea what kind of research scholarships and faculty resources were available until I learned about SRIA.”

Allison, who is a member of the NCAA Division I women’s swim team, is looking forward to more research internships in the future.

Jackie Candito

“Stress Induced Behavior in Response to Repeated Cortisol Treatments”, with faculty mentor Angy Kallarackal, Ph.D.

jackie-candito-sria-picture-in-text.jpgIn reflecting on her research, junior Jackie Candito, a biochemistry major and NCAA Division I track and field athlete, shared that “researching this summer has given me insight to understanding and writing procedures, prepping solutions and other materials, the importance of consistently running precise, repeatable trials and documenting accurate data. Regarding my specific research project, the C. Elegans were utilized experimentally to draw conclusions about the possible interactions that corticosterone has with specific genes as it relates to the physiological symptoms of stress, as their entire genome has been mapped.”

Little to no research has been conducted on cortisol in C. Elegans, and in general, the scientific community still doesn’t concretely understand the mechanisms cortisol utilizes to induce the physiological effects, Candito said. “While a large percentage of society claims to experience stress, there is an absence of understanding of the chemical and biological processes that proceed when someone is experiencing stress. More importantly, the long-term implications of a ‘stressful’ life are largely unknown,” Candito explained. “My research directly relates to this as understanding the response of a simple organism to cortisol allows some theories to be produced about why we experience stress, and which specific gene(s) is responsible.”

Apurwa Shah

“The Role of miRNA in Learning and Memory When Comparing N2 C. Elegans with ALG-1 and ALG-2 Defective Mutants,” with faculty mentor Mike Turner, Ph.D.

apurwa-shah-sria-pic-in-text.jpegDuring her four weeks of research through the SRIA program, not only did senior Apurwa Shah learn numerous lab techniques, tools and procedures but also the importance of consistency, patience and endurance a lab scientist must have in order to succeed. “This experience has cultivated me with the fundamentals needed to help my future by gaining more knowledge academically and excelling my skills in the lab,” said Shah, a biochemistry major. “I was able to fully dedicate my time during these four weeks which has progressed my research in a route that probably wouldn’t have happened during a normal semester.”

Shah went on to say, "Research indicates that miRNAs are important to the functioning of the brain, and if something were to go wrong in these gene regulation networks of miRNA, this could possibly lead to abnormal brain function. Examples of these abnormal brain functions may include learning and memory cognition issues as well as neuropsychiatric disorders.

Marissa Lawson

“Evaluating the Effects of Zebra Mussels on Native Microbial Communities,” with faculty mentor Eric Sakowski, Ph.D.

marissa-lawson--dr.-eric-sakowski-sria-pic-in-text.jpgJunior Marissa Lawson, an environmental science and biology major, conducted research evaluating the effects of invasive mussels on native microbial communities, which expanded upon her prior research experience and provided her with “a solid foundation for a career in environmental research.”

“My mentor, Dr. Sakowski, has provided me with significant guidance while learning new laboratory protocols, including but not limited to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), selecting PCR primers to target and amplify a particular gene, gel electrophoresis, extraction and purification of DNA from gel, DNA isolation, DNA quantification and preparation of DNA for sequencing,” she explained.

Lawson was also able to develop her knowledge on microbial relationships that naturally occur in the environment, specifically the relationships between bacteria and viruses, and the impact that chemical elements, such as potassium and copper, have on these relationships.

Eric Sakowski, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Science Eric Sakowski, Ph.D., reflected on his “good fortune to work with a SRIA student.” “The SRIA program has impacts that also extend to the faculty and future students, Sakowski said. “In addition to providing recipients with funding and mentorship, the program offers faculty a unique opportunity to connect with students and to build a foundation for comprehensive student-led research projects.”   

 “The SRIA program provides a wonderful opportunity for students to engage in meaningful research while developing invaluable technical and critical thinking skills,” he continued.

The SRIA program enabled Marissa Lawson to collect dozens of samples across three different field sites and devise experiments that address multiple research questions. “Ultimately, this should provide Marissa with the capacity to submit her research for publication and may serve as a springboard for future student research projects,” Sakowski said.

Hannah Miller
Graduate Assistant, School of Natural Science and Mathematics