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Biology students share research findings with top scientists

Senior Meghan Sturgill checks the floating arenas she and junior Josh Viar designed to study the ecological role of dragonfly larvae in ponds for their student-faculty research project.
February 03, 2015

Braving heat, mud and bugs that bite, Meghan Sturgill and Josh Viar researched the ecological role of dragonfly larvae in ponds using the floating arenas and field-worthy research methods they designed in Biology professor Molly Jacobs’ lab.

In another McDaniel lab, junior Sophia Fricke worked with Biology professor Katie Staab to explore the properties of connective tissue, such as bone, cartilage and ligament, in three species of fish. Fricke, a Biology major from Pennsylvania Furnace, Pa., became interested in the topic after seeing both of her grandmothers impaired by arthritis and having to retire a favorite horse due to arthritic degeneration.     

Faculty-student research is as strong a McDaniel tradition as ringing in freshmen with Old Main bell.  The hows and whys of research topic varies from one student to another and isn’t nearly as important as what is learned in the research process. Often the students present their findings at a professional conference and become published authors of professional papers even before they receive their B.A.

Fricke, with Sturgill of Westminster, Md.; Viar of Oakland, Md., and three other Biology students took those steps into research and onto a professional stage in January. They presented their research findings at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) in West Palm Beach, Fla. Their professors, involved in SICB since their own undergraduate days, proudly accompanied this next generation of scientists to the meeting.

Jacobs sees a big impact on undergraduates when they go to conferences.

“It makes it all seem real,” she says. “They see countless examples of professional scientists who are totally excited to present and discuss their own work, and at their posters they have the chance to talk to people who came by not because they are students, but because their scientific work is interesting and relevant. That is such an eye-opening experience!”

The close relationship with professors and opportunity to do research as an undergraduate was one of the reasons Rachel Statler, who presented the research she did with Staab on the effects of ornamentation (seen in "fancy" goldfish varieties) on feeding mechanics, came to McDaniel from her small Pennsylvania hometown of Greencastle.

Biology students share research findings with top scientists
Senior Rachel Statler was among six McDaniel Biology students presenting their research at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., in January.

“I benefitted from SICB by making connections with people — outside of casual interactions, the questions posed from those listening to my presentation allowed me to think about my research from a different angle or to confirm that I really did know what I was talking about,” says the senior Biology major.   

As predicted, the students returned from the conference energized and passionate about their futures. Sturgill, who has a second major in Environmental Studies, talked with professors at the conference about graduate school in ecology or conservation biology and possible future research.

“I chose my topic because I find the ecological relationships between trophic levels to be fascinating,” says Sturgill, who conducted her research near her Westminster home at the lake at the Hashawha Environmental Center. “Having the opportunity to present my poster was amazing, I met professors and students that study all over the world. It was great to listen to a variety of different talks and to learn about other research topics that were presented.”

Fricke found it “incredibly inspiring to be immersed in an environment of high-level scientific collaboration with research of my own to share.” Planning to attend graduate school, she has her sights set on a career in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and biotechnology.

“My scientific passion lies in this area due to the innumerable possibilities for innovative medical treatments that it promises. I truly believe that the next leap in progress for humanity will be in streamlining and expanding medical treatment to occur primarily through this field, due to the incredible and non-invasive therapies that it offers,” she says. “Ultimately, I hope to use it to be able to help those closest to me, like my horses and my family.”

Also presenting at the conference were these students of professor Staab:

Katelyn McCabe, a senior Biology major from Westminster, Md., presenting a poster about the growth of a joint in a fish as it grows. The Molly fish (related to the guppy) has a "double jointed" jaw, and the study looked at how the joint developed.

Paola Villegas, a senior Biology major from Burke, Va., compared the gill raker anatomy in 13 species of fish. Gill rakers are found on the inside of the mouth (near the gill slits) and are thought to act like a sieve to filter edible food from non-edible particles. She examined the anatomy in the context of feeding mode and diet.