A Woman's Place Is in the Lab
Jul 30, 2020 11:25AM
By Carrie Hagen
Mansfield University’s Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. Elaine Farkas remembers the first time she encountered recent MU graduate Katherine Thompson in class. Then a junior, Katherine came across as a shy, silent girl from a rural area in western Pennsylvania. She recognized the student’s aptitude, however, so when Katherine asked about a potential research project, Professor Farkas was happy to involve her in an interdisciplinary collaboration that she shared with Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Kristen Long. Katherine’s interest and ingenuity, combined with the professors’ mentoring, propelled the shy student from Greenville into a world of scientific accomplishment and stature.
In late May, Mansfield University named Katherine Thompson the 2020 recipient of its Outstanding Senior Award. She will start her PhD in chemistry this fall at Penn State after turning down offers from Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia, and Stony Brook University. Her success story is one of several similar narratives coming from Mansfield University’s science department.
Mansfield is a small school in the state system with a student body of approximately 1,600. Students at larger, wealthier universities have a host of research opportunities and lab facilities that schools like Mansfield don’t have the resources to outfit or operate. Larger institutions can afford to hire grant-writing professionals—even grant-writing departments—that assist professors in securing research funding, and they can more easily attract financial gifts from corporate donors.
Consider the function of endowments in higher education. The interest from these monies—donations, often from wealthy alums—allows schools to fund things like scholarships and groundbreaking scientific research. Harvard University, the wealthiest college in the world, has an endowment of over 39 billion dollars—that’s with a “b.” Thomas Jefferson University’s endowment hovers around 933 million. Mansfield University’s endowment is 1 million.
That a small state school’s students can compete with those from well-funded, private universities is a testament to its professors’ creative, student-centered pedagogy.
“I’ll come out and say it,” declares Professor Farkas. “Our kids can compete with the best of the best at Penn State, at Cornell, because they get the hands-on experience to know what they are doing.”
The project that Professor Farkas invited Katherine to join is an investigation into the biological effects of micro-plastic and nano-plastic ingestion in plants and animals. Farkas initiated the research after considering studies that found micro- and nano-plastic particles (invisible to the human eye) in the organs of fish. Wondering what long-term effects plastic ingestion would have on the human digestive system, she approached her colleague, Professor Long, a cancer researcher who helped design a mammalian study that tests the effects of plastic bead consumption on mice; after the professors feed the animals beads, students help to study the animals’ tissue samples and bodily fluids. Their collaboration has become the first U.S.-based mammalian model for the effects of plastic consumption on digestive systems (as it continues, the microplastics study will evaluate blood serum markers for organ-specific inflammation; these markers are carefully chosen to model the human response, and preliminary results from Professor Long’s and Professor Farkas’ work indicates that the mammalian liver could be a target for these plastic particles).
“[Farkas and Long] pushed us quite a bit to quantify and analyze the pervasiveness of microplastics in mouse tissue,” reflects Katherine. She and others looked at the livers, kidneys, and spleens of affected mice, and considered whether bigger mammals would have beads persisting in the same organs. Over the past two years, Katherine’s work—particularly her study of the pervasiveness of plastics in the animal spleens and livers—helped her earn three prestigious summer internships: a nanotechnology experience at the University of West Virginia, a Department of Energy placement at Brookhaven National Labs, and a third opportunity at Oakridge National Lab.
“That’s really incredible for any undergrad at any school, let alone a primarily undergraduate institution like Mansfield,” says Professor Farkas.
Katherine presented her work at the American Chemical Society national meeting this past spring (virtually), and last year, at both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania University Biologists conference and at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Chemical and Biological Sciences at University of Maryland Baltimore County. Her presentation at the latter won Mansfield a first place prize in chemistry, besting students from Thomas Jefferson University, UMBC, and other schools.
Katherine says that with modest lab facilities and student-centered instruction, her mentors helped her “make meaningful contributions” by teaching her “to think outside of the box to come up with creative and innovative solutions.”
Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Dr. Maegen Borzok says that teaching at a small undergraduate-minded institution is vastly different than working at a large university focused on graduate and faculty research. Prior to arriving at Mansfield in 2018, she taught at the Ohio State College of Medicine, which recruited her from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she received her doctorate and began her teaching career. While at Ohio State, Borzok ran a successful lab, but the push to publish, source research funding, write grants, and conduct research—in addition to her teaching load—put several stressors on her young family. Borzok and her husband, a Wellsboro native, decided to change their lifestyle. She applied for a job posting at Mansfield and knew it was the place for her as soon as she stepped on campus.
“This is what I want,” she remembers thinking about the small-town feel of the campus. “This is what I’ve been missing.” Once hired, Professor Borzok arranged her office and lab areas to accommodate student “hang-out” areas. She also brought with her a fully developed research project that she could use to engage future scientists. The lab focuses on a genetic mutation in desmoplakin, a protein that helps the heart function. When the mutant agent is present, it is often undetectable and leads to arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy, a fatal heart disease for which there is no cure. Borzok and her students work with collaborators from Yale University, James Madison University, and Ohio State to study the causes of the genetic mutation in desmoplakin, with the goal of fixing it at the molecular level.
These partnerships allow Professor Borzok to engage her students in a sophisticated project with the resources which are available to them. Team members at Yale can source patient-specific stem cells in their cutting-edge labs, those at Ohio State study the physiology of the disease using a mouse model, and researchers at James Madison University can ask structural questions about proteins. At Mansfield, Professor Borzok’s lab focuses on biochemical questions using analytical tools and computer simulations.
“I can use a fairly simple lab to introduce students to really cool science with big implications,” she says. “We don’t need big fancy tools—they’re not necessary for the work we are doing. Students can see that they are capable of this work with the resources they have.”
Mansfield students involved in the research have individual projects that allow them to authentically test and contribute original ideas to the study. Even before the pandemic, they met virtually with collaborators at other universities through bi-monthly Zoom meetings. Katie Hoover, a rising senior from Enola, Pennsylvania, has been studying what causes changes in desmoplakin and how to potentially fix these mutant variants at the molecular level. Her current work—running surface calculations on protein models and studying a particular enzyme linked to desmoplakin protein mutations—has led to weekly virtual meetings with Professor Borzok throughout the summer.
“She doesn’t give me all of the answers,” says Katie of her mentor. “She makes sure that I take the time to think, and she’s taught me that it’s okay not to have the answer right away, that it’s really important to sit with the data and internalize it before you draw your conclusions.”
In 2019, Katie and another senior, Jared Hopkins, presented their research with Professor Borzok’s lab at a regional conference. This past semester, Katie won a grant from the Scientific Research Society Sigma Xi—one of the oldest and largest of its kind internationally—to outfit a “wet lab” with biochemical tools that she and Professor Borzok will use to further their analysis. (Historically, Sigma Xi awards financial grants to only 12-15 percent of applicants.)
Katie is preparing PhD applications now as she enters her senior year at Mansfield. After graduating with a degree in chemistry and a concentration in biochemistry, she hopes to have a research-based career.
Associate Professor of Geosciences Dr. Jennifer Demchak says that six years ago, Mansfield’s science professors decided to focus more heavily on engaging undergraduates in research projects. At the time, the school wasn’t sending many students forward into graduate school. That changed with the arrival of several younger faculty members, who focused more on getting students into hands-on experiences that would “put them ahead of the curve and make their resumes shine.” Professor Demchak says that when professors trust undergraduates to envision and tackle research projects, the students assume a new level of faith in their abilities.
“So many of our students are first generation college kids local to Bradford, Tioga, and Sullivan Counties,” says Professor Demchak. “It’s hard to fathom another level beyond college. Field research is pretty exciting for them.”
In her senior georesearch class, Professor Demchak—an expert in watershed management—has students write a project proposal as if they were graduate students. She teaches wetland identification and has students take her lessons into field work; they perform wetland delineation, use data sheets as consultants would, and write reports on watershed restoration.
“They need to get their hands dirty,” she says.
Mansfield’s biology program requires students to fulfill an independent research requirement. Professor of Biology Dr. Jeanne Kagle says that one of the benefits of teaching undergraduates at a small school is the freedom to investigate any research project that a student proposes.
“I try to spark their interests,” she says. “I want to help them think like microbiologists. To think about how to come up with interesting questions and ways to answer those questions. How do all these pieces fit together? The knowledge part is easy enough. I want them to think about how they take the facts and move them forward.”
When a couple of her students approached her with an interest in the effects of essential oil combinations on biofilms, she helped them develop a project. Another student who completed a work/study with her presented his study on watershed management at a conference for the American Society of Microbiology in New Orleans in 2017.
The time it takes to further undergraduate interests, Professor Kagle says, is something that professors at larger universities don’t often have because of the funding and research pressures that drive their placements. On the flip side, she says, these professors have a better chance of getting funding. Because small state schools don’t have the infrastructure to support large grant- funded projects, grant-making agencies often won’t consider their research interests. But that’s not always a bad thing.
“Those who get big scientific foundation support are then locked into doing that specific research and getting results,” says Professor Kagle.
Student inquiry drives Professor Farkas’s love of teaching.
“In the past, I have worked with biology majors on the vibration response of cockroaches and their potential as early earthquake warning systems, the tensile properties of treated human hair, and the effects of pollution on coral fluorescence,” she reflects.
At a key point in the microplastics project that she is conducting with Professor Long, a student named Katelyn Davis from Gouldsboro, Pennsylvania, approached her with an interest in tardigrades. Tardigrades are aquatic creatures that do not identify as mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. They have the ability to survive extreme environmental conditions by changing their body morphology, and, because they can exist in a state of cryptobiosis (neither alive nor dead), they can serve as indicators of ecological consequences on animal life. Tardigrade research has become an important part of the microplastics study.
Advised by both Professor Farkas and Professor Long, Katelyn presented her work, along with student collaborator Kory Wolfe, at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania University Biologists conference in 2019. They won first place in the “Ecology and Organismal Biology” division. This fall, Katelyn will begin medical school at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Helping undergraduates like Katelyn find a focused career path in the sciences is one of Professor Long’s passions. Her own academic narrative began just like those of her students—at a state school. After graduating from Millersville University, she earned a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Drexel University before pursuing postdoctoral work in the pancreatic cancer research lab at the University of Pennsylvania.
Last year, two of her students had the opportunity to drive their own research work for verification from Mansfield to the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“First generation students have no idea that they can come to an undergraduate institution and get funded and published,” Professor Long says. “I never thought I could publish in one of the best cancer journals in the world. You never think it can be you.” When her students fear that they won’t get an internship, Professor Long rattles off her own rejections. “Failure is part of science.”
In May of 2019, she co-presented research on pancreatic cancer at the American Association of Cancer Research alongside one of her students, a recent graduate named Adrianna Vaskas. Mansfield was the only primarily undergraduate institution present at the conference, and Adrianna the only undergraduate presenter.
From Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, Adrianna first had Professor Long for a cell biology class in the spring 2017 semester. Adrianna had a great uncle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and she knew that a physician had mentioned curcumin—a compound that comes from turmeric—as a potential plant-based therapy.
“I wanted to see how curcumin affected pancreatic cancer, and that blossomed into something I never expected,” says Adrianna. Professor Long mentored her on how to pursue funding, and in 2018 Adrianna was the first MU student to receive a NASA research scholarship. Her work in Professor Long’s lab focused on whether curcumin had an effect on shrinking tumors in mice that lacked T-cells, immune cells that fight infection, and on those with tumors that had functioning T-cells. The animals without the T-cells responded well to the treatment, but not the others.
“Vaskas’ studies showed that curcumin won’t work against tumors that grew up in mice that have a normal immune system (which mimics how tumors grow up in people),” reports Professor Long. “Her studies are more of a word of caution that even though [curcumin] works in mice, it may not work in people.”
Today, Adrianna is working at a hospital in her hometown and readying an application for medical school in 2021. She refers to Professor Farkas and Professor Long as “pioneers” whose collaborations inspire students to do more than what may seem possible.
“They taught me everything I know,” says Adrianna.