Two SHU Biology Majors Win Top Honors in Science Research Competition

News Story:

Two Sacred Heart Biology students were honored in an undergraduate research competition that pitted them against students from some of America’s most competitive universities at the Sigma Xi conference held April 19 at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The annual regional conference featured poster presentations of undergraduate and graduate research in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics and psychology. Sacred Heart students presented 13 out of 63 undergraduate posters.

Jillian Koster, a 21-year-old junior and pre-med student from Hackensack, N.J., and Michelle Mortali, 21, of Hamden, were only two of three students honored for their research out of nearly 80 who presented from 34 colleges and universities.

Koster received the only undergraduate award for her poster presentation of “The Role of Bacterial Endonuclease V in Nitrous Acid Mutagenesis under Aerobic Growth Conditions.”

Jillian Koster

Both women presented research they had done in conjunction with a faculty advisor. They competed against undergraduate researchers from Harvard, Cornell, four State University of New York schools, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Massachusetts, and other research-intensive institutions across the Northeast. They presented the research in poster form to groups of academics and judges. Judges returned three times to review the projects in which they were interested.

“They wanted to know how it was done and why,” said Koster.

Her study was conducted with faculty advisor and Associate Professor of Biology Suzanne Deschênes, Ph.D. They examined the role of a specific enzyme in repairing DNA mutations caused when sodium nitrite — a compound present in processed meats — mixes with acidic solutions in the body. The body’s natural mechanism for repairing such mutations is called DNA mismatch repair.

Koster, who will graduate in December, plans to become a physician. She and Deschênes will continue their study to gauge the impact of nutrition on health.

“We can see if people who are MMR deficient are more prone to cancer based on eating these foods that have sodium nitrate in them,” Koster said.

Michelle Mortali

Mortali, a senior who will pursue a Master’s in Education at the University of New Haven next year, and Associate Professor of Biology Barbara Pierce, Ph.D., examined whether four fruits and three seeds indigenous to Veteran’s Memorial Park in Bridgeport can sustain two species of migrating songbirds for one day.

 “These forest fragments provided a good habitat for them to stop in,” Mortali said.

The research is important because the City of Bridgeport plans to cut down many of the park’s trees to build athletic fields. However, the research showed that the park is an important resting place for the Hermit Thrush and Yellow-Rumped Warblers on a north-south migratory route. Her presentation of the study, “Does an urban forest fragment provide quality foods for migrating songbirds?” was only one of two to receive an honorable mention.

“I enjoyed walking around and seeing everyone else’s research,” Mortali said. Judges asked her in-depth questions about the methodology, techniques, and equipment that she and Pierce used.  “It was a great experience to talk about a year’s worth of work.”

 The honorable mention imbued Mortali with a sense of confidence and achievement.

“To be able to go there and present it and explain it to others…that’s why I want to become a teacher,” Morali said. “I have such a love for science and I want to share it with other people. This experience allowed me to do that.”