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.
When she presented on April 29, Larios was tucked away in her childhood bedroom instead of being on stage in William H. Hannon Theater at the Chalon Campus like previous capstone presenters, and her parents were in their living room watching the presentation over Zoom’s conferencing platform. All they saw was her PowerPoint slides projected onto the television. They couldn’t see her, and she couldn’t see them or the 52 students, faculty and University staff who viewed her presentation.
The coronavirus has changed almost everything about how students nationwide completed their courses this past semester, and for Mount seniors who experienced both the fires at Chalon in the fall and a spring dominated by the virus, the year has been challenging to say the least.
“My heart breaks for the students and all they’ve experienced this year,” says Jen Chotiner, professor and chair of biological sciences. “The Senior Capstone Project brings together four years of hard work and ties together everything in their major. A lot of them had research projects that got completed derailed. But I am more than proud of them. I am inspired by them. To complete these projects given these circumstances, with what at times seemed like insurmountable odds, was amazing.”
The capstone project is almost a mini-dissertation, according to Chotiner. The traditional requirements 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. “My first email to students said that we would go online for three weeks and do practice talks by Zoom,” she says. “By Monday, March 16, we knew that wasn’t going to be the case.” When the University closed its campuses, students were given 48 hours to move off campus, leaving them 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, like Larios, 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 being 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 Global Women in STEM and Policy 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 and their access to health care,” 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.”
Larios wanted an answer to her question. “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 MCF- 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 past summer research conducted on a Catalina Island trip to explore 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.”
While the research portion of her project had been completed, Solorzano was in the literature review stage of her thesis when access to campus was closed. Which meant she no longer had access to the Chalon library’s full resources.
“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 determination helped her finish a project she could be proud of. She found three major points of evidence that this particular species of kelp, called Macrocystis pyrifera (commonly called giant kelp), was the most suitable species for biofuel, compared to 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.
To support the students through this new world of online presentations, Chotiner divided the 14 seniors into four small groups and assembled a team of supplemental instructors, all former biology majors who had completed their own senior capstone projects. The supplemental instructors included Jenn Aldous ’16, Marisol Delgado ’20, and Mahak Virlley ’19.
Not only did students have to keep up with their writing and research, but they also had to practice online presentation skills through Zoom, learning 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. “When I’ve done presentations before, I was looking for the audience’s reaction to know if I’m saying things correctly or if I need to take a step back and explain,” says Solorzano. “I had practiced with my professor and my classmates, but on the day of the presentation, if felt like going through the motions because I missed the facial expressions.”
The saddest part for Larios was that when her presentation was over, everyone just logged off. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye or thank you to the professors who helped me through these four years and on my thesis project,” she says.
Still, they are proud of what they accomplished and are already looking ahead to their next steps. Larios plans to pursue medical school and was one of the few students who took the MCAT on March 14 before the rest of the exam schedule was suspended. Solorzano plans to attend graduate school to become a physician assistant.
“The perseverance and grit of these young women is just astounding,” says Chotiner. “We had some of the best projects I’ve ever seen, and I know how much strength and perseverance it took for them to succeed.”
For her part, Chotiner says that she and others in the department are thinking of new ways to celebrate their graduating seniors, including getting each thesis paper printed and bound as a keepsake. She also made a point during the capstone presentations to highlight each student.
“Normally as master of ceremonies for the presentations, I say a few words about the projects before each talk,” she says. “But this year I made a point to say something personal about each student, because I wanted to honor these amazing women who have made it through this intense major and come out strong.”