September 09, 2022

By Jennifer Yuricich ’00 Spotts

This summer, three students examined baker’s yeast to determine the function and role of a protein that is essential in all living organisms — except baker’s yeast.

“We are trying figure out how loss of this protein leads to misregulation of genes,” explained Bri Watts ’23. “Misregulation of genes can lead to disease and even death.”

Conducting what seemed like “more of the same” became routine for the students. It wasn’t until they were preparing their presentation for the Landmark Conference Research Symposium that they deliberately stepped back to examine their work.

“I realized I would have to explain our reasoning,” said Elizabeth Misner ’24, a biochemistry and Spanish studies major, “so I wanted to better understand what we were doing and why.”

Michael Parra, assistant professor of chemistry, said of his students, “They are doing something a handful of people in the world are doing, so it’s okay not to know why. Research is a time to look at everything you do to find out where things went wrong or where they went right.”

Emily Larkins ’25, a chemistry major in the Honors Program, said that having the opportunity to be a part of multiple types of research — as soon as her first year — is why she chose Susquehanna University. “I saw that I can work with more than one professor, and that’s not something you can find at other universities.”

Mentorship is another rarity offered at Susquehanna. Watts mentored Misner, her former high school science fair partner, when Misner joined her at Susquehanna. Larkins said her summer research experience helped shape how she wants to mentor others. She added that Parra is “the most understanding professor,” to which Watts and Misner agreed.

“Dr. Parra knew I hadn’t worked at this level yet,” Misner said. “He challenged me regularly by asking, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ That built my confidence.”

Parra said it is “powerful” not to be afraid of failure. “Things aren’t supposed to work the first time,” he added.

Parra promotes research opportunities throughout the year because he wants students to participate as soon as possible. Watts, a biochemistry and physics major in the honors program, will have conducted research for a total of seven semesters and two summers when she graduates, and her name will appear on published papers. Crediting Parra and the extraordinary amount of time she spent in the lab, Watts said she feels self-assured.

“Research leads to career progression,” she added. “I know that when I leave Susquehanna, the skills engrained in me will be transferrable to labs in graduate school and in the workplace.”