Kelsy Larios ’20 was nervous as she began presenting her Senior Capstone Project, the culminating experience of her college years. But the biology major was not as nervous as she would have been had the year not been altered by the coronavirus. Rather, she said the experience felt more bittersweet.
Larios was tucked away in her childhood bedroom instead of being on stage in the William H. Hannon Theater at the Chalon Campus, and her parents were in their living room watching her PowerPoint slides projected onto the television over Zoom’s conferencing platform. They couldn’t see her, and she couldn’t see them or the 52 students, faculty and University staff who viewed her presentation.
According to Jen Chotiner, PhD, professor and chair of biological sciences, the capstone project requirements normally include developing an original thesis, conducting a research and literature review, writing a 30-page paper, giving a public presentation in the theater and presenting a scientific poster in The Circle, followed by a reception.
Chotiner first learned that things might not go as planned on March 13, during the Mount’s spring break. When the University closed its campuses, students were scrambling as to how to proceed with their projects. Chotiner decided they could still give the oral presentations over Zoom but had to cancel the poster presentations and celebratory reception.
Part of the challenge to completing the senior research project online was that some students were still conducting research in the Chalon lab, which was now closed. Larios had already faced challenges last fall. A key component of her experiments, the extraction of medicinal components from a woody vine known as cat’s claw, was stored in the lab’s refrigerator. When power was shut off because of the fires, the extraction was destroyed.
The idea for Larios’ project, “The Exploration of Cat’s Claw as an Agent of Complementary Medicine in Cancer,” originated in a research trip she did with the Mount the summer after her sophomore year.
“We traveled to Peru and interviewed indigenous women about their use of herbal remedies,” says Larios. “I heard women speak of using cat’s claw as a treatment if they suspected they had cancer. After I came home and analyzed the data, I realized many used the herbal remedy at the same time as conventional treatments, and I wondered how that interaction impacted standard medications, particularly Taxol, which is a common treatment for breast cancer.
“I took my idea to Dr. Luiza Nogaj and she said, ‘Let’s do it!,’” says Larios. Together, they designed a series of experiments using a particular breast cancer cell line (MCF-7) to test her theory that cat’s claw improved the efficiency of the cancer drug.
“It was original research,” Larios says. “Most data from the scientific community had tested cat’s claw with other chemotherapy drugs, but not Taxol.” Before the power was shut off at Chalon, Larios had gathered some supporting evidence that cat’s claw was effective as a complementary treatment, “but my chance to get the depth and nitty-gritty results I was hoping for was ruined.”
Senior Brigitte Solorzano’s project also came from a past summer research trip sponsored by the Mount. Her research on Catalina Island explored whether a certain kelp species could be used as biofuel. “I was interested in presenting something that was applicable to the world today,” she says. “On that trip, my small group worked alongside a professional team of scientists on this major project, and I was really inspired.
“It was super difficult to transition from being on campus to having to finish the thesis at home,” she says. “If I needed an article from the database, each time I would have to make an appointment with the librarian to request the article, which made meeting deadlines extremely challenging.”
Solorzano’s project suggested that a particular species of kelp, called Macrocystis pyrifera (commonly called giant kelp), could be a more suitable species for biofuel than corn or wheat. “It can do photosynthesis much faster because it grows quickly, it grows in the ocean so it doesn’t need land or fertilizer, and through the fermentation process it produces a similar amount of energy as gasoline does,” she says.
Not only did students have to keep up with their writing and research, but they also had to practice online presentation skills through Zoom, learn to navigate the PowerPoint slides, share their screens, and mute and unmute audience members to answer questions.
Not being able to present in front of a live audience was very disappointing for the students. “On the day of the presentation, it felt like going through the motions because I missed (seeing the audience’s) facial expressions,” says Solorzano.
Still, both Solorzano and Larios are proud of what they accomplished. And they’re not the only ones. “The perseverance and grit of these young women are just astounding,” says Chotiner. “We had some of the best projects I’ve ever seen, and I know how much strength it took for them to succeed.
“Normally as master of ceremonies for the presentations, I say a few words about the projects before each talk,” Chotiner says. “But this year I made a point to say something personal about each student, because I wanted to honor these amazing women.”