Five Students Showcase Professional Research at Biology and Chemistry Honors Presentations


West Windsor, N.J. – Whether they were tucked away in laboratories or canvassing local mountain ranges, five Mercer County Community College (MCCC) biology and chemistry students had plenty to show for their summer spent researching as part of the college’s Biology and Chemistry Honors programs.

Presenting in two groups on Oct. 28 and Nov. 11, the students relished the opportunity to both share the details of their projects, and encourage current students to pursue research of their own.

The first group of presenters included: Maira Ahmed (“Development of DEK Elisa for Early Bladder Cancer Detection”); Jason Ricciardi (“Surveying Wild Comfrey and Installing Tree Tubes at Baldpate Mountain”); and Kwame K. Markin (“Metabolic Engineering to Potentiate Immunity and Discover Novel Anti-Virulence”).

The Nov. 11 group included: Ian Cunningham (“Biomarker Research”); and Mitu Patel (“SREBP Pathway Research”). Also in attendance were Dr. Robert Schreyer, MCCC Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Farah Bennani, Dean of the Business and STEM Division, Professors Diane Hilker (Biology) and Helen Tanzini (Chemistry), as well as a room filled with Mercer Faculty and current MCCC students.

Since finishing their research during the summer, three of the interns, Ahmed, Cunningham and Patel, have begun studying at Rutgers University’s School of Environmental Science and Business. Markin is attending The College of New Jersey studying Biomedical Engineering, while Ricciardi is a current MCCC Biology student.

“Not too long ago I was a watching my classmates present their summer research at MCCC and it was incredibly helpful in planning my own future,” said Patel.

“I worked on detecting bladder cancer with the DEK Elisa kit, which is able to detect and quantify proteins and antigens from urine samples.” Ahmed said. “The current procedure requires the removal of cancer tissue which is invasive. This method is both time-efficient and painless. Hopefully we can bring this to market.”

Cunningham also spent his summer at GBG, specifically on the research side of the Biomarker Research.

“My work supported the diagnosis and treatment of genetic diseases, like breast cancer and cystic fibrosis,” said Cunningham. “On the research side, our work was fueling potential treatments that the commercial staff will use with patients in real-world scenarios.”

Patel, Ahmed and Cunningham’s colleague at both Rutgers and Genesis Biotechnology Group, interned with the GBG’s Institute of Metabolic Disorders, where she studied Sterol Regulatory Element Binding Protein.

“I was tasked with identifying compounds that promote the death of unwanted cells,” Patel said. “When making a drug, the goal is to make something that creates the maximum response at the lowest dosage.”

For the eighth time in program history, MCCC placed a student researcher at Princeton University. This year, Markin worked in Dr. Mark Brynildsen’s lab studying antibiotics and anti-virulence.

“Even though I was at Princeton, I was still in touch with MCCC faculty,” Markin said. “[Mercer Biology] Professor Laura Blinderman, was incredibly helpful in letting me bounce ideas off of her and in interpreting data sets.”

However, one of the more unique internships was Ricciardi’s, which he spent with the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space in the Baldpate and Sourland Mountains. For hours at a time, Ricciardi surveyed the land in the mountains while working on a pair of projects.

Ricciardi also surveyed the region for wild comfrey, a plant that is thriving in the U.S. but endangered in New Jersey.

“Comfrey is a green plant in a forest of green plants,” Ricciardi said. “Some days I could spend six hours trekking through the forests and not find anything.”

Despite the academic diversity of their projects, all of the interns contended that their time at Mercer was crucial in preparing them for success in their internships.

“Coming into this internship knowing things like proper pipetting techniques made the work I did run much smoother than it could have,” said Cunningham.

“The biochemistry class I’m in at Rutgers had 170 people at the start of the semester,” Patel said, adding that in November the course roster had dropped to about 140 students.

“MCCC gave me the foundation to pursue the biological sciences, and made my first two years of college incredibly memorable.”

The Biology and Chemistry Honors Research Presentations began in 1999 as an opportunity for students to get practical lab and field experience in exchange for college credit. Though Hilker and Tanzini work to place students in internships each year, occasionally the amount of interested students exceeds the number of internships.

“We always encourage students to come to us with potential locations for internships,” Hilker said. “Recently, we had two students interning at the Philadelphia Zoo, an opportunity that they found on their own and pursued with the help of MCCC’s faculty.”

“It’s a good opportunity to listen and see for yourself what your colleagues are working on,” Tanzini advised current and future MCCC students. “Before you know it, you could be in these students’ shoes.”

To participate in the Honors Research Program, students must have at least a 3.0 GPA in their science classes, be recommended by an MCCC professor, and devote a minimum of 75 hours per semester at their research institute.

The Honors Program at MCCC

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From left: Dr. Farah Bennani, Dr. Mark Brynildsen, Kwami K. Markin, Professor Helen Tanzini, Jason Ricciardi, Maira Ahmed, Dr. Robert Schreyer and Professor Diane Campbell

From left: Connor McFadden, Professor Helen Tanzini, Mitu Patel, Ian Cunningham and Professor Diane Hilker.