Research That Matters

Research That Matters

All over Utica College’s campus, students are conducting research that has the potential to change the world. Sound like an overstatement? Learn about five students whose research is making waves in their respective fields—and giving their resumes some major wow factor.

 

Small Steps, Big Difference

Gabrielle Abbott ’15

The Basics:
“Lots of chemists go after the big stuff,” says Gabrielle Abbott. “I’m doing the opposite.” A recent biochemistry grad, Abbott is working at the molecular level to help stop cancer from spreading. By building a drug one atom a time, Abbott hopes to create a treatment that binds to DNA, essentially blocking cancer molecules in individuals who are predisposed to the disease. The drug could be crucial in helping patients halt the progression of some of the fastest-growing cancers. 
 
Next Steps:
With Abbott planning to attend graduate school at the University of Oklahoma this fall, she left her research in very capable hands. “[Chemistry professor Daniel Barr] has all the work from my computer, so another student can pick up where I left off,” she says. And while the decision to pass on her work wasn’t easy, Abbott believes that’s what science is all about. “Science is collaborative,” she says. “No one scientist is going to cure cancer. We all have to build off each other’s work.” Not to mention that Abbott’s accomplishments are impressive in their own right: She’s had her research published in two respected journals.
 
Why It Matters:
As a kid, Abbott dreamed of becoming a medical doctor. Watching her mother’s struggle with multiple sclerosis—which involved dozens of prescription medications—turned her attention to the world of drug research. “I’ve seen the connection between drug and patient,” says Abbott, who realized chemistry was a better fit as a student at UC. “Even though I’m not the one dealing directly with the patient, I’m helping people. It’s another side of the same coin.”


Gabrielle Abbott '15



“Science is collaborative,” says Gabrielle Abbott '15. “No one scientist is going to cure cancer. We all have to build off each other’s work.”

 

A Smarter Form of Cancer Treatment

Anna Piasecki ’16 and Katherine Pearce ’16

 
The Basics:
Biochemistry majors Anna Piasecki and Katherine Pearce have spent the past two years working to modify methotrexate, a drug currently used to treat cancer. The problem with current cancer drugs, explains Pearce (above, right), is “they’re not cell specific, so they kill good cells along with the bad,” which is why many come with devastating side effects that limit their effectiveness. Says Piasecki: “Doctors often have to ask, ‘Is this drug doing more harm than good?’” With the help of advanced computational software that helps chemists design drugs at the molecular level, Piasecki and Pearce are recreating methotrexate’s structure so it’s more effective in human cells. Their modified version of the drug, if successful, will target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. 
 
Next Steps:
Thanks to high-level software (Utica College uses the same program as many top pharmaceutical companies), Piasecki and Pearce’s drug currently exists as only a molecular blueprint in the computer. "People think chemistry is all test tubes and beakers,” says Pearce, smiling. “It’s not like that anymore. We can do almost everything on the computer.” This, she explains limits the expense, time, and risk of physically testing new drugs. But now, with a molecular model that appears to be effective, Piasecki and Peace are in the early stages of synthesizing the drug—that is, actually creating it. It’s the first step in designing a treatment that may one day be used in top cancer centers and hospitals. 
 
Why It Matters:
While everyone has been touched by cancer in some way, for Piasecki, the disease hits even closer to home: Her dad passed away in January after suffering from a rare form of leukemia. And for both young chemists, cancer patients like Piasecki’s late father are never far from their minds. “We’re always thinking of real people when we’re in the lab,” says Pearce. “We always say that if we can make life better even for one person, it’s all worth it.”
 







 
Anna Piasecki ’16 and Katherine Pearce ’16

“We’re always thinking of real people when we’re in the lab,” says Pearce. “We always say that if we can make life better even for one person, it’s all worth it.”

 

Blending History and Hometown Pride

Nolan Cool ’15

The Basics:
Nolan Cool is both a history buff and lifelong resident of the Mohawk Valley (he grew up in Frankfort, NY). So when it was time for the history major to choose a topic for his senior project, he was excited to stumble upon an area of Mohawk Valley history that other historians had largely ignored: The fur trade. During the 18th century, Cool explains, animal pelts, prized for both warmth and fashion, were big business (the traditional tri-corner hats we associate with that time period were made of beaver fur). But after the Revolutionary War, the industry was on the decline—for everyone but a handful of merchants in the Mohawk Valley. “They were smart businessmen who knew how to take advantage of their location,” says Cool. Geographically, he explains, Schenectady and other small cities along the Mohawk River were in the perfect position to act as a conduit between fur suppliers in Albany and the Great Lakes. In his research, Cool identifies the individual merchants who helped bring economic prosperity to the Mohawk Valley in a time when other regions were struggling.
 
Next Steps:
Since completing his thesis last spring, Cool has presented his research at Student Research Day in April, and again in June at the New York State Historical Association Conference at Niagara University. He’s also got several speaking engagements lined up for the fall at different historical sites around Central New York.
 
Why It Matters:
Cool’s research, he says, is a matter of giving credit where credit is due. “These entrepreneurs really kick-started commercial expansion in the area, and most people don’t know who they are.” But beyond that, sharing his research is one step closer to his ultimate career goal: Cool plans to earn his Ph.D. and become a public historian. “A lot of history majors go on to work in academia,” he says. “But I want to be out there in the community, showing people that history doesn’t have to be boring.”






 
Nolan Cool

“A lot of history majors go on to work in academia,” Nolan says. “But I want to be out there in the community, showing people that history doesn’t have to be boring.”
 

 

Scents of Accomplishment

Bonita Gibb ’15

The Basics:
It’s something we’ve all experienced: You catch the whiff of a certain scent—hot apple pie, freshly cut grass, a strong perfume—and you’re transported back to a vivid memory. For Bonita Gibb, a recent psychology grad, the experience inspired her research focus. With the help of psychology professor Steven Specht, Gibb hypothesized that people who describe themselves as particularly nostalgic would have more detailed recollections when presented with certain scents. To test this idea, Gibb gathered 60 Utica College students, introduced them to four potent scents (vanilla extract, orange extract, peppermint, and maple syrup). She then asked the students to write about any memories the scents prompted. The results were surprising: Those who said they weren’t nostalgic reported the most vivid memories, describing their recollections in an average of 130 words. The self-described “nostalgic” students offered shorter descriptions, often less than 25 words. “It was the complete opposite of what we expected,” says Gibb, “It sheds new light on how the state of nostalgia  is influenced.”
 
Next Steps:
Gibb’s nostalgia research has taken a backseat since graduation in May 2015 – for good reason. Gibb was hired as a research analyst at Bassett Healthcare in Cooperstown, NY, where she’s using research to help New Yorkers implement healthier habits. “But I’ve always been fascinated by scents,” she explains. “So it’s something I hope to study more in the future.”
 
Why It Matters:
Nostalgia is a hot topic in the psychology world because of its strong effect on mood. (Up until the 20th century, nostalgia was considered a form of depression.) Studying the ways nostalgia is induced can help psychologists treat mood disorders, and Gibb hopes her research adds to the conversation. “Humans are fascinating creatures, and the way the amygdala processes odor is something that needs to be explored further.”






 
Bonita Gibb

“I’ve always been fascinated by scents,” Gibbs explains. “So it’s something I hope to study more in the future.”

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