Trinity College students Suzanne Carpe Elías ’22 and Kathryn Russell ’22 have each been awarded a grant from the TriBeta National Biological Honor Society that will support laboratory research work for their senior honors theses in biology.
Research Associate Professor Terri A. Williams said, “TriBeta is a national honor society for biology with more than 625 chapters throughout the country. It has an annual competition for research grants to support undergraduate research. Trinity’s TriBeta chapter was started in 2014 and inducts new members that meet the national criteria for excellence.”
Carpe Elías and Russell—who are members of Trinity’s TriBeta chapter and are part of its executive board this year—have conducted independent research since their first year at Trinity. “Both students are planning research in their future careers, and these awards mark their excellence and promise,” Williams said.
Read more about each student below:
Suzanne Carpe Elías ’22
Hometown: Metapán, El Salvador
Majors: French and biology (biomedical sciences concentration)
As part of Trinity’s Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP) during her first year at Trinity, Carpe Elías got involved with research early on in her undergraduate career. She has been working with Williams since fall 2019, studying the segmentation process of the red flour beetle Tribolium castaneum using molecular and developmental biology techniques.
“I am specifically interested in studying a gene called caudal, and how it is involved in this segmentation process. We know that this gene helps regulate segmentation in Tribolium, but previous studies for this gene consider both of its transcripts in combination. My thesis is focused on studying each transcript individually to identify whether there is a difference in expression and function between them,” Carpe Elías said of the topic of her thesis research. “With this type of study, we can increase our understanding on the developmental biology of arthropods, some of the most abundant life forms in the planet.”
In addition to her research work at Trinity, Carpe Elías worked as a research assistant for St. Francis Hospital, where she was involved in a study examining the long-term effects of COVID-19, and had a research internship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through the Immunology Summer Program offered by Harvard Medical School. “Both of these opportunities would not have been possible without all the help and support that I have received from Trinity faculty, particularly [Center for Interdisciplinary Science Director] Alison Draper and Dr. Terri Williams,” she said.
Carpe Elías said the TriBeta grant will provide funding to conduct experiments for her thesis project. “The main function of caudal is to regulate other genes, and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) experiments can help us measure the activity of these other genes. These qPCR experiments are similar to the COVID-19 RT-PCR tests we have become familiar with, which some might know can be expensive. With the grant that I received, my lab will be able to purchase a kit with the necessary reagents to conduct these qPCR experiments and study how the caudal transcripts affect other genes and hopefully to give us more insight as to whether these transcripts are actually behaving any different from each other.”
While at Trinity, Carpe Elías has had the opportunity to mentor fellow students, present her research at a national conference, and learn how to read scientific literature. “I am also very passionate about teaching, and I have been able to serve as a teaching assistant and supplemental instructor leader for chemistry and biology for five semesters now,” she said. “Dr. Williams has been an amazing mentor and she has helped me become a better scientist and person. I honestly believe that my education at Trinity and particularly the research experiences here have provided me with a very strong background and the necessary skills I need to succeed professionally in the future.”
After graduating from Trinity, Carpe Elías plans to work in a research lab for two years and then apply to Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs in the areas of infectious disease and public health. “I grew up in a developing country with a very precarious health system, which motivated me to utilize science to help people in such areas of the world that need it the most,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to make the world a safer place by trying to better understand and treat illnesses.”
Kathryn Russell ’22
Hometown: Grafton, Massachusetts
Major; minor: Biology (biomedical sciences concentration); models and data
Like Carpe Elías, Russell also began her time at Trinity as a member of the Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP). “Every student in this program is guaranteed research in their freshman spring and the summer after their freshman year, and I was paired with Dr. Williams to do that research,” Russell said. “Since then, I’ve worked with Dr. Williams every semester and summer on various research projects pertaining to developmental biology in Tribolium castaneum, the red flour beetle.”
In addition to her research with Williams, Russell was part of Trinity’s Health Fellows Program during her junior year. “Through this program, I was paired with a doctor at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center to work on a retrospective study on an anti-nausea medication and am continuing to work on this project in my spare time,” she said.
Russell’s honors thesis is a continuation of work she has done with Williams, focusing particularly on cell movements as segments are being added to the developing beetle. “It involves a lot of genetics and molecular biology,” Russell said. “I am focusing on a specific type of cell receptors which are known as Toll receptors. Part of these receptors are exposed on the outside of cell membranes and allow cells to communicate with each other so they know where and how they are supposed to be moving as the organism grows. The scientific community knows a lot about how these are functioning in Drosophila, the fruit fly; however, the way that fruit flies add their segments as they are developing isn’t how most organisms add their segments. Tribolium adds their segments in a way that is more representative of how a lot of organisms add their segments. My project aims to find the similarities and differences between how these Toll receptors work in the two organisms.”
Russell plans to use the money from the TriBeta grant to buy various reagents needed for experiments she is conducting as part of her thesis. “For example, I am probably going to use a large portion of the money to buy phalloidin, which is this stain you can use to visualize cell outlines,” she said. “This will allow me to get an idea of how cells are changing their shapes as the organism develops.”
Following graduation from Trinity in the spring, Russell plans to take a gap year while she decides between applying to medical school or graduate school as the next step on her career path. “During this year I plan on working either at a biotechnology company or as a research assistant,” she said. “I think the education I received at Trinity will be extremely beneficial for whichever career I choose to pursue. Both ISP and the Health Fellows Program gave me great insight into the realities of life as either a researcher or health professional, along with practical experience in lab techniques and data analysis. In addition, my education here has greatly improved my writing, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills, along with providing me with so many great mentors who I know will continue to support me throughout my career.”
To learn more about Trinity College’s Biology Department, click here.