It looked like 2019, except for the masks.
In December 2021, before the close of the fall semester, George Mason University students participating in the College of Science’s Biology Undergraduate Research Semester presented their research in the Hub Ballroom.
This was the first semester back for the program as the college was not able to offer the research experience during the pandemic.
"The students just can't do this kind of research without being in the lab, in the field," said Arndt F. Laemmerzahl, director of the Biology Undergraduate Research Semester.
Laemmerzahl said the 18 students presenting at the celebration were chosen from 32 applicants. As research semester students, biology majors work one-on-one with a Mason researcher while earning 12 to 15 upper-division biology credits toward their degrees.
Geraldine Grant, chair of the Biology Department, said the semester really gives the students a chance to immerse themselves in research, expand their horizons and put their academic knowledge to work in the real world of research.
"Many of the students go on to pursue graduate degrees in biology," said Grant. "Some find the experience eye opening and realize that research is not for them—and that’s a good outcome too. Best to learn that now than two years into a graduate program."
Grant said they have opened up the program to researchers across the university.
"We believe [this change] is helping our students realize just how interdisciplinary their degrees can be and how integrative science really is," she said. "We want them to translate lecture to life, and the research semester is helping."
During the event, each poster was judged on a number of parameters. Winning this year's Marion Lobstein Award was sophomore Trent Grasso. The award is presented by the Virginia Academy of Sciences (VAS) and named for Lobstein, an associate professor of biology at Northern Virginia Community College, to recognize her for her years of service. Grasso will have the opportunity to present his research at the VAS annual symposium in Richmond, Virginia.
Biology senior Joshua Foster spent the semester working with Mason microbiologist Monique van Hoek on the antibacterial properties of extracts derived from marine microorganisms found in the Arctic. This project, “Novel Antibiotic Discovery in Staphylococcus aureus,” was done in coordination with Wendy Strangman at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, who provided the extracts that could be the potential source of a new antibiotic. Foster plans to attend medical school after graduating from Mason in December.
Biology sophomore Trent Grasso said he felt he had a clear advantage in presenting because his research was about elephants—and everyone can identify with elephants. Grasso spent the semester studying elephant endocrinology with Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation researcher Kathleen Hunt and School of Integrative Studies professor Elizabeth Freeman. In his project “Measuring Hormones and Growth Rate in Elephant Tail Hairs,” Grasso looked for the hormones cortisol, testosterone, and progesterone in tail hairs from African bush and Asian elephants, which could provide a means for tracking an elephant's hormonal history.
Biology senior and Honors College student Julia Hakeem spent her semester studying the effects of imidacloprid, a widely used insecticide/pesticide derived from the natural plant toxin nicotine, on neural cells. Working with Mason researcher Nadine Kabbani and PhD student Patricia Sinclair on her research project, “Mechanisms of Neonicotinoid Toxicity During Human Neural Cell Development,” Hakeem used liquid chromatography electrospray ionization, mass spectrometry, and informatic analysis to identify proteins and pathways in the cells that can contribute to imidacloprid toxicity during neural development in humans. Hakeem, who is also working on a minor in Spanish, will continue working on this research this semester and plans to graduate in May.
Biology senior Zainab Qazalbash was also working with Monique van Hoek and testing marine extracts, which were provided by Dr. Wendy Strangman at University of North Carolina-Wilmington. For her research project, “Novel Antibiotic Discovery in Multi-Drug Resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa,” Qazalbash, who is planning to attend dental school after Mason, focused on the effects of marine extracts against multi-drug resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause serious infections mostly in people who are immunocompromised. "Our research showed that the bioactive compounds extracted from marine Arctic bacteria can be a potential new source of natural antibiotics,'' she said.
Biology senior and Honors College student Margaretta "Maggie" Walker worked with Mason biology professor David Luther on a project looking at Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) sites, which are areas around the world that contain the last remaining populations of one or more species listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. For her project, “AZE conservation opportunities: Assessing the potential for unprotected AZE sites to qualify as OECMs,” Walker, who is working on a conservation minor, used available databases and published information to determine what entity owns the land each site is on and whether the site could qualify to be designated an IUCN Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures (OECM). Walker, who plans to graduate in May, is spending the spring semester in Front Royal, Virginia, as part of the Smithsonian-Mason Semester.
In her research, “Analyzing CASP3 Expression and the Morphological Effects of Nicotine on Ocular Development Using Zebrafish as a Model Organism,” biology senior Hasti Zendehdel looked at the effects of nicotine on embryonic development using developing zebrafish. Zendehdel, who worked with biology professor Valerie Olmo, is pre-med and is planning to study ophthalmology. "The result of this study allowed us to have a better understanding of the nicotine pathways that can impact eye development," she said.