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Julie Tischer, a 2013 biology alumna, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Microbiology Department at the University of Georgia.

Beginning her third year in the program, Tischer is studying the CRISPR-Cas system, an adaptive immune system in bacteria and archaea, and is fascinated by the ways tiny organisms influence the planet and public health. Specifically, Tischer is studying the function of the system and how it integrates small fragments of invading genetic elements, such as viruses, into its own genome. These fragments, according to Tischer, are then used to detect the invader if it ever returns again, recruiting proteins to chop up the foreign nucleic acid.

“Microbiology in general has so many broad impacts on the world, from industry to health care,” Tischer said. “CRISPR research, specifically, is revolutionizing science through its use as a gene editing tool. The CRISPR field is rapidly moving towards possibly one day being able to cure genetic diseases, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Studying the foundational mechanisms involved in the CRISPR-Cas immune system is allowing us to try things we never knew were possible.”

Tischer’s interest in the field dates back to her seventh grade life science teacher who inspired her to study biology in college. Years later, Tischer’s interest grew into a calling as a result of the support and encouragement of Dr. Chad Sethman, associate professor of biology at Waynesburg University.

“I was particularly inspired by Dr. Chad Sethman, from whom I took many courses, including microbiology. That was my favorite course by far, and sparked my enthusiasm to pursue the field for my graduate research,” she said.

From her microbiology course, Tischer developed an interest in becoming a part of discovering how organisms function, and how they can be useful to humans, she said. According to Tischer, “each and every one of [her] professors at Waynesburg University led [her] to where [she is] today,” but scientifically speaking, she said, her biology professors, and the personal relationships she shared with each of them, helped her to develop into a “competent research scientist.”

Tischer also credits her Waynesburg University education for granting her the opportunities necessary to be accepted into a selective graduate school program.

“Choosing Waynesburg University allowed me to have a variety of experiences I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to at a large institution,” she said. “Waynesburg University provided me with all the foundational tools necessary to have a successful graduate career in research.”

Upon graduation, Tischer plans to pursue a career in teaching — a career that she says will allow her to give back to future students.

“I have had so many influential mentors and teachers in my scientific career, and I really want to make a similar impact on developing scientists. I have such a passion for helping people get excited about science and research, and love to see that moment when something finally clicks in a student,” she said.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Seth-Polk.jpgSeth Polk, a Waynesburg University biology alumnus and a first-year student at Eastern Virginia Medical School, has been inspired by the health sciences and fields involving laboratory research his entire life. Although he deems it both a blessing and curse, as a child, Seth was constantly plagued with injury (a majority sports-related) that caused him to spend an unimaginable amount of time in hospitals.

“As a result of growing up in hospitals, the hospitals grew on me,” he said.

Polk is pursuing a master’s in biotechnology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and also plans to seek his Ph.D.  Upon completion of his education, Polk has an interest in joining the United States Navy, providing service to a country that he says “has given so much to [him].”

Polk comes by his desire to serve his country from the example set by his father, a retired United States Navy Lieutenant Commander who gave 25 years of service to his country. As a result of growing up in a “Navy family,” Polk recognizes the impact of the opportunities that potentially await him.

“The armed forces provide vast and advantageous resources for health care research,” he said.

His desire to research in the field of cell biology in relation to immunological responses can be attributed to his mother’s recent diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.

“She gives me inspiration,” he said.

Polk undoubtedly hopes that his work will one day “uncover a cure for Multiple Sclerosis.”

Polk credits his Waynesburg University education for his preparation for graduate school and beyond.

“Waynesburg prepared [me for my future] by providing excellent practical laboratory experience while maintaining strong lecture of underlying theory,” he said.

Polk also credits unmatched professors and dedicated mentors for his research skills, his understanding of the scientific process and “the push required to mature in the laboratory sciences.”

As for his Waynesburg University experience as a whole, Polk sums it up with one word — responsibility.

"Responsibility is the word I think of when I see the Seth Polk of today versus the Seth Polk of four years ago, and I have Waynesburg to thank for that characteristic,” he said.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Rachel-Lovely.jpgThree items topped Rachel Lovely’s wish list when it came to making a decision for her undergraduate career. Her list — a solid education, a personal relationship with her professors, and an environment that would allow her to study what she loved while playing the sport she enjoyed — has proven to have contained all the appropriate qualifications to prepare her for a successful future.

“Waynesburg offered me this and then some,” she said.

Lovely, a Waynesburg University biology alumna and a first-year student at The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is working toward her medical degree with the hope of one day becoming a surgeon.

The combination of growing up in a medical family and discovering her love of science has allowed Lovely to recognize her calling.

“My father is a podiatrist, so I really got a first-hand look at the humanistic side of medicine from a young age. I've wanted to be a doctor since I can remember, but when I found my niche in science, I knew it was the field I was called to,” she said.

During her college summers, Lovely periodically volunteered in the operating room, and during her junior year, she was part of an internship program called Mentoring in Medicine. These experiences revealed a more specific path and kindled her interest in the surgical field.

“There was always something magical about the operating room. It was the one place, that I saw anyway, that it was just you and the patient, no distractions. I really liked that unwavering focus,” she said.

Lovely said her Waynesburg education, coupled with the close-knit relationships with her professors, are largely responsible for paving the way to where she is today.

“I cannot boast enough about [Waynesburg University’s] Biology Department,” she said.

Specific mentions of Dr. Christopher Cink, associate professor of biology, Dr. Bryan Hamilton, professor of biology, Dr. Chad Sethman, associate professor of biology, and Marietta Wright, assistant professor of biology, further demonstrate the emphasis and importance Lovely places on relationships and how they aid success.

Lovely said that through these professors, whom she refers to as geniuses, she learned how to truly understand, not just memorize, the information taught in class. She also credits humor and dedicated mentoring for the extent of her learning.

Along with her positive experiences with faculty, Lovely credits the culture of learning at Waynesburg University for the growth she has experienced.

“Waynesburg challenged why I did things, what I believed, and even how I thought. I really liked that. It allowed me to have a deeper understanding of science, religion, psychology and just interacting with people in general. I went from Roman thinking, ‘how do you,’ to thinking more like a Greek, ‘why do you’,” she said.

In addition, Lovely said her four years at Waynesburg helped her to “have a deeper understanding of what Christianity meant personally."

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b2ap3_thumbnail_5-21-Narasimhan-2_20150522-144111_1.jpgThis internship keeps getting cooler. Today, we had a troop of wild howlers hanging around the sanctuary, and our babies actually got into the trees and interacted with them! We call this troop R2D2, and all of their names have something to do with Star Wars. The dominant male’s name is Yoda, and the other male is Vader. 

It’s interesting because no matter where a howler troop is, you will almost always find the dominant male in the center of the group. Stevie, our blind howler, was playing with Mace, a baby in the troop. It was adorable. Rugby is still a little shy with other howlers, but she is getting there. Watching the wild howlers and capuchins is unlike anything I have ever seen. It’s one thing to see them in photographs and to learn about their behavior in a textbook, but nothing compares to seeing it in person. I really enjoy just sitting peacefully and watching. 

Another cool thing we are doing is documenting howler behavior. The species has been neglected in this area, and so the research we are doing is extremely important. Every day we do several behavioral follows, either focusing on one baby or both. For about forty-five minutes, we document their every behavior, which can be anything from a vocalization to foraging. This is called an ethogram, and it takes a while to get the hang of. We are also identifying all of the individuals in each troop to try to get a population count. As of right now, it is not known how many howlers live in Panama, further adding to the importance of our research.

My favorite part of the internship so far has been interacting with the monkeys. The babies are frustrating at times, and it sometimes feels like babysitting spoiled toddlers. We try to keep them in the trees and off the ground as much as possible, to mimic a normal upbringing and get them used to a typical howler lifestyle (wild howlers spend almost no time on the ground). Sometimes, however, the babies do not want to get into a tree and just want to cuddle. Sometimes they will bite and run away, resulting in a wild monkey chase. However, watching them in the trees and playing with them is so rewarding, and they have the ability to make anyone’s heart melt, no matter how hard they bite.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_5-19-Narasimhan-1.jpgI’ve been at the sanctuary for a few days now, and I am already immersed in the several projects going on here. I am learning so much. While the babies are adorable and fun to play with, I am falling in love with the capuchins. 

Their intelligence is so obvious when you spend even a small amount of time with them. Every time I enter their enclosure, they embrace me quickly and then search my pockets for hidden almonds I may have brought for them. After that, we settle down for a grooming session. I usually groom Angie while Ace sits on my shoulder and grooms me. It is easy to forget, however, that these are wild animals and not pets.

I’ve been trained in how to read their body language and facial expressions. For example, when upset, caps will bare their teeth in a way that almost looks like they are smiling. This is similar to their play face, so when working with them, you have to always be aware of how they are feeling and behaving.

Because they have to live in an enclosure while they are being rehabilitated, it is easy for these intelligent creatures to become bored. We try to provide as much enrichment for them as possible, and part of everyday is dedicated to that. We often rearrange their enclosure, so branches are in different positions than they were before and new ones are added. We also hide their food in interesting places and design fun toys for them. Some favorites of theirs are colored paper or egg cartons with yummy peanut butter.

We also have to watch for stereotypic behaviors they might exhibit. These are behaviors that are common in animals in captivity, and are usually a sign of distress or boredom. Lately Ace has been doing a quick head roll, almost like a twitch. This is a common behavior in capuchins in captivity, but it isn’t clear what it means or how to prevent it.

Another cool thing with capuchins is their territorial behavior. When trying to ward off enemies or demonstrating dominance, caps will break and shake branches. It’s actually quite terrifying to be on the receiving end of one of these encounters. We try to keep the wild caps away from the ones in our care, as they take their food and make Angie nervous, so part of the job is breaking and shaking branches at them in return. I’ve had a couple showdowns with some wild caps, and they are extremely intimidating.

I’m learning so much about animal behavior and husbandry, and loving every second of it!

 

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