Innovative Research Launches Promising Futures for Professor Schuh’s Students

Isabel Cohen, Kristen Harnett, Melia Granath-Panelo, and Rylee LautrupIt is a delightfully unusual accomplishment for undergraduate students to have their names cited as first author on a research paper. In just the last few years, however, Biology Professor Sonya Schuh’s undergraduate research students have achieved this feat repeatedly. These students have also gathered an array of awards, scholarships, and prestigious graduate program acceptances. The opportunity to research with Schuh as their mentor in the Summer Research Program, or as an independent researcher, has propelled her students to success upon graduation.

Isabel Cohen ’21 reflected on how she decided to pursue research using stem cells during her Summer Research Program. “There has been a lot of research lately about how [BPA alternative] toxins affect your hormones—it might be implicated in obesity, and I wanted to look at that on a cellular level,” she explained.

The Summer Research Program is a unique opportunity for students to carry out a research topic of their and their mentor's choosing, along with the benefit of housing on campus, a living stipend, and a budget for research supplies and costs. Students can choose their advisor, and those that chose Schuh have not been disappointed.

“I wanted to see how BPA alternatives affected the ability of stem cells to turn into fat cells,” Cohen said. “I got to present at a conference, and we got to publish a paper. It was all a unique experience for an undergraduate.” 

Cohen, author on two publications and first author on one, just finished working with the Schuh team to prepare another paper for publication, and is getting ready to apply for medical school while she works in community health for the AmeriCorps. 

Doing the work to publish, let alone participate in research, is far from easy, but according to many of Schuh’s past students, the opportunity to choose, act, and discuss independently within these research roles was empowering. Schuh has had a prolific year for the School of Sciences with five peer-reviewed publications in 2021 alone. She said she owes this success to team collaboration and to the fruitful efforts of her and her research students.

Kristen Harnett ’20 shared that she was ecstatic to work with Schuh. “She’s a powerful female scientist,” Harnett said. “She really wants you to be an independent worker.” Harnett is now a research associate at University of California, San Francisco. She is an author on four publications and first author on three, with plans to apply for PhD programs. 

“I never imagined my research turning into any kind of publication,” Harnett said, “but with Sonya’s encouragement, we came to the realization that our findings were actually very important and that other people needed to know about it.” Harnett was a past summer researcher in 2019, but continued her research beyond graduation and supervised research on BPA alternatives in 2020. “We found some pretty shocking results,” she said. “We wanted to establish that BPA alternatives were a thousand times worse than BPA.” Harnett and the Schuh team just published a paper concerning BPA alternatives and embryonic development that she started in her senior year while taking a Development course.

Rylee Lautrup ’21, a finalist for valedictorian in her graduating year, is in the process of taking the MCAT and applying to medical school while preparing to get her medical assistant license. “Watching [Schuh] lecture with such enthusiasm and excitement inspired me to feel the same way,” she said. Schuh emphasized that she chooses students for research who are motivated to put in the work, and demonstrate enthusiasm and a real desire to put forth positive change.

 “I wanted to get onto her research team to not only get a better understanding of mechanisms at the cellular level but to also make a difference toward holistic health and wellness through stem cell studies,” Lautrup said. “In high school, while I was smart, I was not the smartest; but upon graduating SMC, I got the Biology award. This did not come easy—my professors at SMC expected nothing but the best from my peers and me.”

Hard work certainly pays off for Schuh’s past students, like Melia Granath-Panelo ’19, a first-year graduate student at Harvard University studying metabolism. Her only regret in pursuing independent research was that she wished she’d done it sooner. “My time at SMC was integral in my decision to pursue research at the doctoral level,” Granath-Panelo explained. “We were working on a project that had translational implications. The close connections I made with such supportive mentors and peers really propelled me through the process of getting to where I am now.”

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