Molecular & Cellular Biology

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Congratulations to MCB Senior Awardees Renee Conway and Benjamin Zaepfel!

Congratulations to MCB Senior Awardees Renee Conway and Benjamin Zaepfel!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

by Justin Schneider

May 2017 MCB Excellence in Undergraduate Research Awardee: Renee Conway

Picture of Renee Conway at the beachWith the end of the semester fast approaching, MCB undergraduate Renee Conway has a lot going on in the final weeks leading up to her graduation. Luckily, I was able to get her to stop by my office to chat about her journey as a student, her plans for after graduation and the work that led to her receiving the MCB department’s award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research.

A Tucson native, Renee tells me despite taking an advanced research methods class in high school that piqued her interest in science, she was still skeptical. “I didn’t think research could be a career,” she says smiling. “I started as a pre-nursing student volunteering in a hospital before switching to MCB.” It was after Renee was accepted to the Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP) the summer after her freshman year that her passion for research really took off. What was it about working in the lab that captured her interest? “Learning how to think,” she states emphatically. “I never knew there was so much to learn about learning.”

 Renee is quick to point out that there were some growing pains as she became accustomed to life in the lab. “The first time I tried to use a pipette I held it backwards,” she says laughing. “Research was definitely a challenge at first.” Despite those challenges, Renee clearly knows what she’s doing now. Currently finishing her senior capstone with research mentor Dr. Klearchos Papas in the College of Medicine, after graduation Renee plans to attend the University of Michigan to pursue a PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology. Her long term goal? “Being an entrepreneur,” she tells me. “I’d love to start my own biotech company. Discovering something new and being able to use that to help people is what research means to me.”

When she’s not working, Renee likes to spend time exercising outdoors, whether it’s swimming, rock climbing, or participating with UA’s student triathlon team, the Tri-Cats.  “Anything ‘outdoorsy’ is a great way to relieve stress,” she says.

As our chat came to an end, I asked Renee what she liked most about the MCB program and whether she had any advice for incoming students. “I love that the MCB major is broad enough to explore many options,” she tell me. “There is this great connection between what we’re learning in class and the lab.”

Renee says that taking courses in computer science and mathematics also helped to expand her interests and open her up to new opportunities. She recommends new students be willing to take similar risks. “Start early even if you don’t know what you want,” she says. “Take a class that sounds interesting even if you don’t know exactly where it will lead. You may find ways that it will be useful and give you an edge.”

Renee smiles wide as she gives me her last piece of advice, “Apply to UBRP!”

May 2017 MCB Outstanding Senior: Benjamin Zaepfel

Ben Zaepfel has become something of a welcome staple around the MCB advising office. As a graduating senior and president of our undergraduate MCB Club, Ben can often be spotted near the office in jeans and a t-shirt, having stopped by to chat with advisor Marisa Lester about club affairs, graduation, or to simply help out by giving one of our potential transfer students a tour.

If most senior undergraduates are busy people, then Ben is decidedly very busy. Not only is he an Honors College ambassador and MCB club president, Ben is also involved in publishing research and will be graduating with a triple major in MCB, biochemistry, and physiology with a minor in mathematics. When I ask him what he does in his free time, he smiles and laughs. “This is the wrong semester for free time. There is only lab!” When I press him a bit further Ben admits he does still make time to have fun with his friends, whether that’s climbing, hiking or relaxing with one of his other favorite pastimes: watching the men’s UA baseball team.

Picture of Ben ZaepfelClearly Ben has an impressive resume, but as anyone who works with him will tell you, it’s his personality and commitment to his peers that make him such a unique student, helping to earn him the MCB department’s Outstanding Senior award. “When I got the email about the award it was during an interview at John Hopkins University,” he says. Did it help his confidence in subsequent graduate school interviews? “It certainly didn’t hurt,” he says smiling. The interview obviously went well because Ben plans to enroll at John Hopkins University as a PhD student in the fall, where he hopes to continue his research in neurodegeneration.

Ben first became involved in research during his sophomore year when he reached out to his cell development professor, Dr. Daniela Zarnescu, about working in her lab. “She said no to me at first,” Ben says laughing. “But then a week later she got in touch and said they had a spot for me.” After working in the lab that semester, Ben was accepted to the Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP) and continued to work in Dr. Zarnescu’s lab. Today, he is a Beckman scholar who will be presenting his research on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) with other scholars at the Beckman Consortium in Irvine, CA.

When I ask Ben about what he enjoyed most about being an MCB major he is quick to reply. His favorite class was MCB 325 with Dr. Joyce Schroeder (The Biology of Cancer) and loved working as a preceptor for Dr. Nagy and Dr. Bolger in MCB 305 (Cell & Developmental Biology). As for the big picture, what he will remember most about his time here? “The people,” Ben says. “My lab mates, advisors, and instructors. I’ll retain the science but the people I’ve met have made the difference.”

Similarly, Ben says he hopes to see the MCB Club continue the work they’ve done this semester connecting students to faculty and MCB students to each other. “We share so many classes with other majors,” he says. “You can be in class and not know who the other MCB students are.” Ben hopes that by continuing the club’s outreach and fund-raising efforts, as well as hosting guest speakers and holding workshops, MCB students will have many more opportunities to get together.

Ben has found great success in our department and is looking forward to what the future holds. “I tried research and loved it,” he tells me. “If I have any advice for new students it’s this: If you don’t like it, don’t do it. If you do, do it a lot.” Thank you, Ben, for your hard work and we look forward to your continued success!