Capstone research projects position Biology majors for grad school and career success
Now on their way to doctorate programs, medical school, high school classrooms and careers that span wildlife preservation, agriculture production and forensics, McDaniel’s 2020 Biology graduates all learned valuable skills and life lessons while immersing in the capstone research that is the culmination of their studies in their major.
Their presentations may be virtual this year, but 2020 Biology majors’ capstones still reflect their diversity of scientific interests and unabashed enthusiasm for research.
The more than 20 Biology majors graduating this year explored topics ranging from smallpox vaccine to diabetes and pollution, from insect roles in forensics to cancer drug discovery, from HIV to soybeans and beyond.
With sights set on doctorate programs, medical school, high school classrooms and careers that span wildlife preservation, agriculture production and forensics, McDaniel’s senior Biology majors all learned valuable skills and life lessons while immersing in the capstone project that is the culmination of their studies in their major.
The goal of the Biology capstone course is to teach students to use objective data and only objective data to draw a biologically significant conclusion in a project of their choice, according to Biology professor and department chair Cheng Huang. While a vast majority succeed, students find it challenging – and even eye-opening – that it is not always straightforward to understand the truthful, and often hidden, conclusion the data represent.
"The Biology capstone course is not just a science class, it is our greatest liberal arts parting gift to the Biology Class of 2020.” - Biology professor Cheng Huang
Their professor proudly explains that his capstone students learn to understand data, gain respect for its importance and enthusiasm for interpreting primary data for themselves rather than taking other people’s conclusions as truth.
“Objective data are critical for us, because they are the only path to scientific truth – the key to sensible and effective policies that impact human beings,” says Huang. “Given the world in which we live today where this principle is often trampled, the Biology capstone course is not just a science class, it is our greatest liberal arts parting gift to the Biology Class of 2020.”
Devon Maranto of Dayton, Md., has no plans to become a marine biologist but his capstone research on the symbiotic relationship between coral and bacteria may someday serve him well as a physician in understanding the human genome.
“The best part of this project was learning about how to use the bioinformatic tools to produce, organize, and view my data along with successfully troubleshooting many common obstacles for this kind of work,” says Maranto, crediting Biology professor Allison Kerwin for mentoring him through the research. “The experience is invaluable to future research I may be doing, and I know I can use these bioinformatic tools or versions of them for studying human genomes.”
Biology majors can choose to do a literature review instead of research, as Sarah Mahmood of Westminster, Md., did with her capstone study of human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. Mahmood, who is pursuing McDaniel’s five-year master’s in Teaching to become a Biology teacher, explains that in HIV, white blood cells, the cells that help fight infection in body, are destroyed which makes the individual severely prone to other infections, making them immunocompromised.
“To study this, I reviewed literature to find that Vpr, a key protein in the pathogenesis, inhibits Rip-1, a protein necessary for replication of the cell, to perform its function – causing the cell cycle to come to a stop,” she says. “The best part about doing my project was working with (Biology professor) Dr. (Cheng) Huang.
“He has taught me how to accurately do the most important thing in science – understand how data talk.”
Cooper Hostetler and Jade Enright did their capstones in labs at other institutions over the summer between their junior and senior years – Enright at Yale and Hostetler at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. They will head to St. Louis to pursue their doctorates at Washington University in the fall of 2020.
While conducting research in the formation of the Cajal body, a structure necessary for proper gene expression regulation, Enright of Cresaptown, Md., learned many new methods such as cell culture and fluorescence microscopy, which resulted in some striking photos.
“This research solidified my next steps – graduate school and a career in molecular biology research,” she says, explaining that gene expression is the process through which DNA is conferred to physical traits. Considering a research career either in industry or as a professor, Enright thinks “it would be great to become a professor at a small liberal arts college like McDaniel, because I know how much my life was impacted by the great biology professors here.”
Hostetler’s research on soybeans also helped him decide his next move – preparing for a career in agricultural biotechnology. Researching ways to prevent the valuable oil content of soybeans from decreasing before the soybeans mature, he dove into this new-to-him branch of biology and ultimately decided to study Plant Biology in graduate school.
“It was great to learn about a different aspect of biology compared to all my previous experiences,” Hostetler of Cumberland, Md., says. “I became familiar with a number of new, powerful techniques and began to think about how to answer questions from a new angle.”