Category: Natural and Physical Sciences News

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Faculty Feature: Darryl Aucoin: A Science Professor’s Formula for Success: Teamwork, Humor and the Great Outdoors

DARRYL AUCOIN: A SCIENCE PROFESSOR’S FORMULA FOR SUCCESS: TEAMWORK, HUMOR AND THE GREAT OUTDOORS 

Professor Darryl Aucoin was describing the odd shape of a molecule to his chemistry students. “Did you ever have your umbrella flip inside out?” he asked. “It kind of looks like that.” 

To explain how atoms and electrons relate, he showed his students a cartoon with a “great Snidley-Whiplash-looking chlorine atom” (referring to an old TV A picture of Darryl Aucoinvillain) that was “practically stealing an electron from a poor hydrogen, who is very distressed looking,” said Aucoin, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences. 

Aucoin uses analogies to insert humor into the classroom when he is teaching a complicated subject. Most times his creative gymnastics come on the spur of the moment. “I often find that I come up with them in the middle of the lecture and I can’t remember them later when I try to write them down,” he said. The comparisons relieve tension in the classroom—“slow me down a bit so the students can catch up.” He might have to explain the concept two or three different ways, but when he finds an analogy that “clicks,” it makes teaching “really fun.” Then students start to understand the more abstract ideas, which makes all the mental exercises worthwhile. 

Prithy Adhikary, a senior, has had Aucoin all four years at Caldwell, in classes and labs and as a freshman advisor. She appreciates his humor. “He reminds me of Walter White,” said Adhikary, referring to a chemistry teacher in the TV series “Breaking Bad.” More important, she said, he is the type of professor students can see about day-to-day academic problems, and “there will always be a solution.”  

For Aucoin, connecting with students is a benefit of teaching at a smaller university like Caldwell. In his “Principles of Chemistry” course for nursing students or in his labs for the general chemistry course or the biochemistry class for junior- and senior-level science students, the atmosphere at Caldwell opens up a world of science that is focused not only on knowledge but also on “wisdom”—hence Caldwell’s motto of Sapientia et Scientia, Wisdom and Knowledge. “Knowledge is what you know, and wisdom is how you use it, or your application of the knowledge. And they are both important,” said Aucoin. That is why “you teach classes, but you also show students the practical in the labs.” 

Biology major Sudeep Khadka has two labs with Aucoin and appreciates that he is open to students’ ideas. “He always says ‘yes’” to trying projects, said Khadka. 

Aucoin and his colleagues in the Department of Natural Sciences encourage student-led research. They have been integrally involved in planning the university’s annual Research and Creative Arts Day and in helping students prepare for the Independent College Fund of New Jersey’s annual Research Symposium at which their work is showcased for statewide business and community leaders. 

Aucoin sees how research provides many benefits for students beyond the science; they learn professional skills like adaption, trouble-shooting, “coming up with new solutions, not getting too frustrated, problem-solving” and especially teamwork. “All of my lab courses have students working in pairs,” he said. Students learn how to collaborate. They divide responsibilities, assist each other with data collection and bond and get to know each other better. This “lets them make a friend in the department,” which he points out is especially good for his freshmen. 

Aucoin remembers what it was like when he was young and discovering the world of science research in Greenville and Smithfield, Rhode Island. His chemistry and physics teachers at Smithfield High School challenged and encouraged him to pursue science studies in college. Then his freshman chemistry teacher at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, sparked his interest in becoming a university professor. “He also wore a suit every single day, which is where I got that from,” said Aucoin. 

Chemistry Professor Demonstrating an Experiment to a Group of Students

He majored in chemistry and biochemistry at Clark and had multiple opportunities to engage in research. “I want to make sure we give that opportunity to our students.” He went on to graduate school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, earning a Ph.D. in structural biology; he did his postdoctoral work at Ohio State University where he focused on nuclear magnetic resonance research, examining the proteins associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Working with another professor, he learned the ropes of teaching by helping train students, setting up labs and working as a teaching assistant. 

Aucoin is aware that many of his 80-plus undergraduate students will enter professions that help others, becoming nurses, doctors, physician assistants or drug designers, and he hopes he can inspire them to ask questions like “How can we stop certain diseases from progressing as bad as they get? Can we understand those diseases so we can make better drugs to help people?” He believes these are important questions for students to ask themselves, especially at a Catholic Dominican school that is focused on how to serve the common good and to search for and discover the truth. 

For Aucoin, a whole world of discovery is waiting to be explored. He and his wife, Hilary, enjoy the great outdoors, hiking up mountains—everywhere from Colorado to New Jersey, where they can find less-traveled places, “nice little ponds or lakes” and ruins like the Van Slyke Castle in Ramapo. An avid photographer, he always packs a camera—“anywhere we go to pick something that has some kind of mountain view or a lake.” He and Hilary, along with Natural Sciences Professor Agnes Berki, have taken university students hiking to show them “the splendor of the fall foliage.” As international students, Khadka and Adhikary are grateful to discover the beauty of nature in New Jersey and to find that professors are generous with their time. “They are like family,” said Adhikary 

Aucoin gives back to the community, volunteering with the middle school and high school Boy Scout troop at St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell, New Jersey. He is happy to be a part of an experienced team that teaches young people how to camp outside in all types of environments, “giving them survival skills and confidence in their abilities,” he said. As a kid, Aucoin camped outside in all weather conditions, even “when it was only 20 degrees … and I still have my fingers and toes to prove it.” 

The skills he learned in scouting—like leadership, character development, citizen training, and teamwork—have proved to be a good foundation for many aspects of life including his schooling and professional work.

Aucoin especially appreciates the teamwork he sees modeled across campus, and this makes his job worthwhile. “Everyone pays so much attention to their students.” The members of his department have good camaraderie. “We all get along really well and we help develop ideas together … and share resources,” he said.  The team has the same primary goal in mind: It is laser-focused on the students— “That they know we really care, that we are there. All in it together.” —CL 

 

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University Receives National Science Foundation Grant to Support Science and Math Majors

National Science Foundation LogoCaldwell, N.J., Dec. 20, 2019 –

Caldwell University was awarded a National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Program (S-STEM) grant to support the retention and graduation of high-achieving, low-income students majoring in biology, chemistry, or mathematics.

The federal grant of $650,000 was provided to develop the project, “Increasing Enrollment, Retention, Graduation, and Job Placement by Supporting the Connections of Commuter STEM Undergraduates to Faculty, Peers, and Industry”.

Darryl Aucoin, Ph.D. assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences, says the grant will provide scholarships, academic student support and enhanced interactions between faculty and students.  “Learning we received this grant that will provide academic support for science and math majors and boost scholarships is a wonderful holiday gift.”

The five year award is under the direction of the project team of Aucoin and Department of Natural Science professors, Dr. Agnes Berki and Dr. Marjorie Squires, Associate faculty of the Mathematics Department Patricia Hayden and Education Department adjunct lecturer Dr. Marisa Castronova.

Science students in a labThe project team will study how well their plans help commuter students develop meaningful relationships with resident students and with faculty. They anticipate that the project will generate new knowledge about the impact of supplemental instruction on commuter students’ science identity, retention, degree attainment, and career choices.  They hope these findings can help other colleges and universities across the country better support the success of STEM students who commute to campus.

Partial support for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S STEM) program under Award No. 1930295. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.  

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Science Students Learn New Research Skills in Internships

Caldwell, N.J., Sep. 9, 2019- Several students from Caldwell University’s Department of Natural Sciences participated in summer research internships taking them all across the United States. The internships challenged the students academically and gave them clarity or confirmation for their future endeavors.

For the second summer, Marina Schlaepfer, a junior majoring in biology and Marina Schlaepfer during her internshipminoring in chemistry, returned to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to participate in the Gates Summer Internship Program. Over the course of 11 weeks, interning with 20 other students, Schlaepfer explored cardiology under Lori Walker, Ph.D.

“Specifically, I researched unlocking the plasticity of cardiac myocytes to harness the regenerative potential of the heart,” Schlaepfer explained. “I was able to identify unique cellular signaling pathways and factors from cardiac fibroblasts that can contribute to cardiac myocytes being more proliferative and fetal-like [or dedifferentiated].”

When a person suffers a heart attack, the muscle cells of the heart, cardiac myocytes, usually die instead of regenerating, but according to Schlaepfer, Walker’s lab had found that some other mature heart cells can become less mature and then turn into myocytes, allowing the heart to replace the damaged muscle cells.

Completing the internship confirmed to her that she wants to pursue cardiology.

“I have always known I loved cardiology, and this just made me realize how much I truly love it,” she said. “The heart is so fascinating to me, as it’s such a hardworking machine.”

Schlaepfer is considering taking an M.D.-Ph.D. route so she can become a clinician-scientist or a physician who also conducts research.

In addition to Dr. Lori, Schlaepfer said she was thankful to senior research assistant Yanmei Du for providing guidance on her project.

Kofi Mireku, a senior, also conducted his research at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus as part of the cancer research summer fellowship program at the campus’s Cancer Center.Kofi Mireku during his internship

Under the supervision of Dr. Medhi Fini, a doctor-researcher and assistant professor at the Anschutz Medical Campus Center of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Diseases, Mireku conducted his research in the field of breast cancer.

“We began a pilot study on xanthine oxidoreductase and ROS [reactive oxygen species]   tolerance on E0771 breast cancer cells,” Mireku said.

Before this experience, Mireku had never worked with animals or on in vivo techniques. Inoculating the mammary glands of premenopausal and postmenopausal mice with the E0771 breast cancer cells, Mireku measured for tumor growth in both groups.

While collecting data, however, he and Fini accidentally found that the genes that code for XOR—an enzyme that generates ROS, a molecule believed to encourage cancer growth—appeared to have been removed from the tumor growth in postmenopausal mice.

This led Fini and Mireku to hypothesize that XOR plays a significant role in controlling the function of fibroblasts found in the breast.

Though the research is ongoing, Mireku said he finished the first phase and shared his data with the academic community in a poster presentation on campus.

Thanks to this internship, Mireku said he fulfilled his goal of understanding the dynamics of being both a medical professional and a researcher, which cemented his conviction to pursue a career in medicine. He was also able to network with other professionals, which led him to another opportunity over the summer that exposed him to clinical experiences.

Aarion Romany, an international student from  Trinidad and Tobago,  a senior majoring in chemistry and minoring in marketing, found it challenging to find a research program that would accept an international student. After applying to several programs, Romany was accepted for the summer undergraduate research fellowship program offered by the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.Aarion Romany during his internship

“There I was assigned a mentor who was a funded principal investigator,” Romany said. “The lab I joined studies a protein called human DNA helicase B (HELB). It is a protein that is involved in repairing our DNA as it’s damaged.”

Although this was his second internship, Romany said it was the first time he had conducted research at an R01 institution, one that receives large research grants from the National Institutes of Health. Romany said that the internship “was a wonderful experience” and that he plans to go to graduate school.

Romany advised other international students who are looking for research internships not to give up or to “limit the scope of where you look for research opportunities.” He encouraged exploring possibilities throughout the United States because that’s what led him to Arkansas, but he said the best place to start is at Caldwell University’s independent undergraduate research program. “Through this program I was prepared for conducting research, troubleshooting, thinking, and even giving presentations,” he said.

Keith Kyewalabye, a junior majoring in biology and minoring in music, who is an international student hailing from Uganda, also had difficulty finding research opportunities.

Over two summers, Kyewalabye applied to more than 40 programs and finally was accepted to two for the summer. He chose the summer undergraduate research program held at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas.Keith during his internship

“I was doing cancer research. More specifically, the project I was working on was helping to understand this gene called ATM,” he said. “I was studying the effects of a mutation on this gene [and] its expression.”

ATM, or ataxia telangiectasia-mutated, plays an important role in fixing damaged DNA by releasing a protein to repair mutations. However, Kyewalabye explained that some cancers might mutate the gene, causing it to release a “defunct protein” that cannot repair DNA well. The Food and Drug Administration, he noted, has approved drugs that target the mutated ATM, shutting down its ability to repair cancerous DNA, thus causing the cancer to die.

Kyewalabye said some people who have the mutated ATM gene, and who are expected to respond well to the medication, do not respond as anticipated, because not all mutated ATM genes produce a defunct protein.

“I was trying to understand what types of mutations result in defunct proteins and what types of mutations leave proteins working.”

Kyewalabye found his internship experience insightful, and he realized that one can work in a clinical setting and in research. He hopes to become a neurosurgeon and is considering applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs.

Right across the street from where Kyewalabye was conducting his research, Ngima Sherpa, a biology and chemistry major who is set to graduate in December 2019, was conducting her research as part of the summer biomedical research internship or SMART program at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston.

“I did not know her before, but a mutual friend of ours told me she was in Houston as well, working in a hospital across the street from me, and we eventually got into contact and connected over the summer,” Kyewalabye said.

“We bonded quickly,” Sherpa said. “It was really nice to meet someone from home in a new town.”

During her nine weeks at BCM, Sherpa worked at the Center for Drug Discovery in the lab of Dr. Dr. Nihan Ucisik and Dr. Martin Matzuk.Ngima Sherpa presenting her research project

“I was new to the lab’s research area of drug repurposing through computational chemistry, given my previous background in biological research, but my mentors were very instrumental in helping me learn the concepts of computational chemistry and different cheminformatic techniques,” Sherpa said.

BCM “is an incredible hub for cutting-edge scientific research, providing the perfect environment for thriving young scientists,” she said. Because of her research experience, Sherpa decided to pursue a Ph.D. She will be giving a presentation on her research in Hawaii this fall.

Fellow senior Shreyoshi Hossain, a biology major minoring in chemistry and business, participated in a summer internship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island where she worked on a computational biology project.

“I was quite nervous for a couple of reasons, firstly because this was the first time I would be working with a programming language and second because I would be working in the institution ranked number one in academic research worldwide by the scientific journal Nature,” Hossain said.

Luckily, with the support of her mentor, Dr. Hannah Meyer, Hossain was encouraged to learn through trial and error, and by the end of her internship she had mastered a new programming language called R, written a 20-page paper titled “Literature Mining for Human Pathogens” and presented her research to experienced scientists.Shreyoshi during her internship

“Although it was an intense few weeks, I am so grateful for the experience,” Hossain said.

In addition to conducting research during their internships, students attended seminars where they met professional researchers and learned about their fields. In some cases, they had an opportunity to shadow physicians.

Among the other students doing research this summer were Amelia Biswas, who worked at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Prasad Gyawali, who interned at the Henry E. Riggs School of Applied Life Sciences at the Keck Graduate Institute in California as part of the Bioprocessing Summer Undergraduate Internship Training and Education Program.

–          Deborah Balthazar ’17

 

 

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Health Sciences Grad Receives Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship for Medical School

 

Favour Garuba recipient of Phi Kappa Phi fellowship

Favour Garuba ’19 is the recipient of a Phi Kappa Phi fellowship. She will be attending Washington University School of Medicine in the fall on a full scholarship.

Recent graduate Favour Garuba is the recipient of a fellowship from the prestigious honor society Phi Kappa Phi.  PKP awards the grants to members who are starting their first year of graduate or professional study.  Garuba, who received her bachelor’s in health sciences May 19, will be entering Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in the fall on a full scholarship.

Garuba was active in community service during her undergraduate years including spearheading the Phi Kappa Phi book drive for Autism Awareness month in April where students collected over 300 books for The Learning Center for Exceptional Children in Clifton, New Jersey.

She was thrilled when she found out that she was selected for fellowship. “Once I read the email, I felt grateful, honored, and humbled,” and she felt like a load was lifted off her shoulders, “All I could really say was ‘thank God.’”

Lynne Alleger, associate faculty member in the Academic Success Center and president of Caldwell’s chapter of PKP, worked closely with Garuba on the project.  “Even with mid-terms looming and graduation quickly approaching, Favour was always ready and willing to meet, make suggestions, and coordinate with our book drive recipient.”

Alleger is also proud of the other student leaders, Chennelle Lawrence, Roksana Korbi and Anwar Khalil for “their diligence in getting the book drive off the ground in a very short period of time and securing a very grateful recipient…all of the young women were more than motivated to meet with me and get the ball rolling on our agendas.”

Garuba, an international student from Nigeria, is grateful to the Phi Kappa Phi Chapter at Caldwell for nominating her, to the professors in the Natural  Sciences Department who wrote recommendation letters and to “the countless other individuals” at Caldwell who helped her achieve her goals.   She is looking forward to starting her medical studies so she can use her gifts to help those in need. “I would like to dedicate my services as a physician and researcher to improve health in a way that reaches every community, including those in disadvantaged areas.”

Watch News 12 New Jersey’s feature with Favour as Viewer of the Day. Watch it here.

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More than 200 Caldwell students present projects at Research and Creative Arts Day

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Research Astrophysicist Presents on Science and Faith in Harmony: The Heavens Declare the Glory of God”

Caldwell, N.J., April 29, 2019 – More than 200 students presented their projects at Caldwell University’s third annual Research and Creative Arts Day. This year’s theme was “Ut in Omnibus Glorificetur Dei— That in All Things God May Be Glorified.”

The event’s opening featured a performance of “All Good Gifts” from “Godspell” by the cast of the Music Department’s Opera Musical Theatre Workshop.

President Nancy Blattner read nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” which celebrates the “ever-present magnificence of God’s creation” and, she said, beautifully mirrored the theme of the research day. The challenge, said Blattner, is for “each of us in the audience to become more alive to God’s presence—whether that revelation be made to you through the beauty found in nature and art or through the discoveries revealed in the realm of science.”

Dr. Barbara Chesler, vice president for academic affairs, explained that the annual event provides an opportunity for students to display the work they have done throughout the year. The students are mentored by faculty and “go in as a novice and come out as an expert.” In the process, she said, they learn about communication, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and time management.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Anton M. Koekemoer, research astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, who spoke on “Science and Faith in Harmony: The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” In introducing Koekemoer, Dr. Darryl Aucoin, an assistant professor in the Natural Sciences Department, said, “Dr. Koekemoer has worked to take us deeper into the universe than we have ever seen, and in doing so takes us back in time to the early days of the cosmos.”

Koekemoer, who has carried out scientific research with the Hubble Space Telescope for over 20 years with a focus on distant galaxies and black holes, presented a journey of exploration through the cosmos, highlighting exciting astronomical discoveries and images from the telescope that inspired beautiful artwork in The Saint John’s Bible. He pointed to the sense of awe and wonder expressed by ancient writers of Scripture—like the psalmist, who exclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God”—and said this sense grows when viewing the universe with modern telescopes. Koekemoer’s presentation was part of the university’s “Year with The Saint John’s Bible.” The sacred work is the first handwritten, illuminated Bible of monumental scale in 500 years.

After the presentation, students displayed their poster presentations and projects to judges and visitors.

Amelia Biswas, a biology and psychology major, focused on the “Evaluation of Garlic and Thieves Oil as Treatments of Leprosy.” Growing up in Bangladesh, she saw many people suffering from leprosy. As a child, she wanted to do something to help people with the disease but could not. When the opportunity to do research arose in college, she said, “Let’s use this platform and try to do something.” It was her first research project. “I grew up through the process and gained a better understanding of scientific research.”

Jaclyn Berman, a senior in the School of Nursing and Public Health, researched the effect of music therapy on postoperative relief. Concerned about the opioid crisis, she wanted to do research on alternative therapies. She found that music therapy reduced pain and therefore reduced the need for pain medication. She hopes hospitals will implement similar plans for pain management after surgeries.

Stefanie Konboz and Romina Ghale, biology majors, looked at “The Study of Antimutagenic Properties of Emblica officinalis and Annona muricata.” They researched whether amla fruit and graviola would exhibit anticancer properties. Konboz thoroughly enjoyed the project work and appreciated all she learned from Aucoin and Associate Professor Agnes Berki. “I’ve always asked questions, and the research was a learning process every day,” she said.

Holly Reiter, a senior graphic design major, showcased her senior exhibition “Alive Again,” which featured her digital paintings, inspired by music. “It made me realized I want to be an illustrator for the rest of my life as my career.”

The keynote for the graduate section of the day was given by Humberto Humby Baquerizo on “Translating Leadership, Resilience and Community Service in Scholarship.” Baquerizo received a doctorate in education leadership from Caldwell and works at Rutgers Medical School in the Office for Diversity and Community Engagement.

Jhoanna Marquez, an academic advisor at Caldwell, did research on students placed on academic probation. Her research focused on the extent to which semester meetings with advisors increased the motivation to improve academic standing as perceived by students on probation. Since she has been working with this population for some time in her position at Caldwell, she was pleased to see that the connection with the recovery advisor improved the outcomes for students in areas such as study habits and awareness of campus resources and also helped with retention.

Marjorie O’Connell, a graduate student in the Education Division literacy program, focused on the question “Can the Use of Brain Games Improve Working Memory and Reading Comprehension for Students in a Middle School Special Education Setting?” She teaches study skills in a resource room for seventh- and eighth-graders and was very pleased to see from her study that executive functioning, which are self-regulation skills, as well as behavior and reading comprehension improved for this population with the games. “I can’t wait to hit the ground running with it next year,” she said.

Courtney Kane, Christopher Colasurdo and Shariq Khan, graduate students in the applied behavior analysis program, looked at “Vocational Skills Assessment for a Young Adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” “This was right up my alley,” said Kane, a graduate assistant in the Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis, who wants to work with young adults with autism spectrum disorder when she graduates. They replicated a previous study to determine the vocational skills that their learner had in his repertoire. In future work, they plan to teach the skills he did not demonstrate.

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Research on a natural mosquito deterrent earns CU student Independent College Fund of New Jersey award

CU students Lamar receives Independent College Fund of New Jersey award

Student Lamar-Shea Chang was honored at the Independent College Fund of New Jersey Undergraduate Research Symposium . He is pictured here with Natural Sciences Department professors, Dr. Darryl Aucoin and Dr. Marjorie Squires.

Caldwell, N.J., April 10, 2019 – Premedical student Lamar-Shea Chang was honored March 18 at the Independent College Fund of New Jersey Undergraduate Research Symposium for his research titled “Convert every human into a natural mosquito deterrent.” Chang, who is also majoring in computer information systems with a concentration in business systems and minoring in chemistry, received honorable mention for his research, which focused on the growing problem of mosquitoes in many areas of the world and how humans are being exposed to some of the diseases the insects carry.

Chang pointed to scientific models such as the Coupled Global Climate Model and the Community Climate System Model that predict mosquitoes are progressively moving more north and more west in the United States and Canada. With the guidance of the faculty in the Natural Sciences Department, he tested plant oils to see how they could affect the general behavior of mosquitoes and if they could act as a deterrent. The oils he used were azadirachta indica (neem), andrographis paniculata (rice bitters) and aloe vera. His data revealed that when the mosquitoes were exposed to the oils extracted in the lab, they adjusted their behavioral patterns, no longer moving away from the area where the extracts were located.

He presented his findings at the Independent College Fund event at the Liberty Science Center; the event encourages students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. It was a thrill for Chang when he learned of his recognition. “I said, ‘Did they really call my name?’” Then he looked at the faces of his professors, including Dr. Marjorie Squires, his advisor, and knew by their smiles that he was in fact receiving the award.

Chang, a junior from the island of Jamaica who started his college career with several AP classes, is grateful that the Caldwell Natural Sciences Department provides students the opportunity to do research as undergraduates. He says his professors walked him through every step of the process.

Next semester Chang will be analyzing the economy of Jamaica for his CIS business systems concentration. He has set his sights on pursuing medical school, perhaps becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. As he says, “More to come.”

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DR. WILLIAM VELHAGEN: THE SCIENCE OF AN EXCELLENT EDUCATION

FACULTY FEATURE

Headshot of Dr. William Velhagen

DR. WILLIAM VELHAGEN:

THE SCIENCE OF AN EXCELLENT EDUCATION

From the time Dr. William Velhagen was a child growing up in the Philippines, he thought of teaching as a way to make the world better. “For me it was a way to improve humanity, to ease suffering… I loved learning and was always curious. I wanted a career as a scientist.”

Today, as an associate professor and the chair of the Natural Sciences Department, Velhagen encourages his students to look at how science can benefit the lives of others and to be eager to learn. “In many ways, I’m an idealist. Excellence for its own sake matters. If you really love what you are learning, you will stay up late to learn more. You’ll read books and news articles,” he says.

As advisor for Caldwell’s pre-professional programs, Velhagen wants his students to appreciate what it means to work hard toward their goals. Koumudi Thirunagaru, a science alumna now in medical school at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, benefited from being challenged in Velhagen’s classes. When she was a sophomore she took his physiology class and was instantly engaged by the way he taught. “He pushed our boundaries to think outside the box and challenge ourselves.”

In the classroom, Velhagen’s zeal for science inspires his students. Thirunagaru says his enthusiasm gave her a passion for a subject “as bland as histology” and trained her eye to look at pathology slides in medical schools. When it came time for her to apply to doctoral programs, she was grateful for his guidance. “He was extremely supportive and prompt with everything I needed and wanted so I could put my best foot forward.” After starting her studies at George Washington, she saw how her undergraduate background connected. “The clinical cases and clicker questions Dr. Velhagen did during his classes tied everything in and put it in perspective, making it easier for me to think about clinical cases as I began my journey in medical school.”

Velhagen believes it is important to keep the bar high for future doctors. “I know what it is like out there… I know what it takes to get into medical school.” He recalls how he attended medical school for over two years in his native Philippines—“those were great times”—before realizing he was being drawn to a different field.

The seeds of academic excellence were planted by his parents while he grew up in a family of six boys. They lived in the capital region of Manila—that “wonderfully, crazy, chaotic, cosmopolitan city”—where he attended La Salle Green Hills grammar and high schools run by the Christian Brothers in which studies and community service were emphasized. “The school as a whole gave me a great education.” He was a voracious reader, constantly taking books out of the school library or from his parents’ library. “I always loved science for its own sake… I was always inquisitive.” While studying as an undergraduate student at the University of the Philippines, he was invited to become a member of the selective, all-discipline, century-old honor society Phi Kappa Phi. Two years ago, he was honored when he was asked to be a founding member and the first president of Caldwell’s Phi Kappa Phi program. “It is a great way to bring faculty and students from different disciplines together.”

Velhagen first came to the United States for graduate school at Duke University. For his thesis, he was drawn to an understudied area of research focusing on the intersection of evolution and development of reptiles. “I don’t like following the crowd; even as a scientist I wanted to do something that is a little different.” It was “pure intellectual curiosity,” not utility, that led him to research snakes. The project—funded by the National Science Foundation—led to a competition against other students who today are accomplished scientists; he received the prestigious Stoye Award for Best Student Presentation in Genetics, Development and Morphology.

Velhagen’s career took him to teaching positions in science departments at universities in the United States including James Madison, Longwood and New York University. After experiencing large and small institutions, he appreciates the size of Caldwell where he can teach students throughout their four years rather than in only one or two classes during their college careers. “I see them grow from their first year to their fourth years… so that is gratifying.”

Velhagen considers himself the luckiest department chair in the university. “My colleagues are among the most proactive and collegial at Caldwell.” Velhagen and his colleagues begin guiding students in their freshman year as they prepare for medical, dental, veterinary or other professional schools. They teach them how to present themselves to admission officers and potential employers, how to prepare for mock interviews, how to put together a CV and how to study for the MCATs and other tests. During the time Velhagen has been overseeing the pre-professional programs, the department has greatly increased the number of students who have realized their dreams of being accepted into graduate and medical schools. He cites several reasons: “the students we are bringing in, my colleagues, the groundwork laid by others.” Still, it is clear that the numbers have gone up while he has been at the helm.

In addition to encouraging preparation for the health professions, the Natural Sciences Department encourages student research; the department is working to interweave more throughout the curriculum for all four years. Many science students have displayed their projects at the university’s annual Research and Creative Arts Day, which is aimed at promoting STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts 
and math.

For Velhagen, a busy father of two teenage girls, effective learning always comes back to that word “curiosity.” If educators want their students to be curious, he believes, they have to model it themselves. “A big problem with how we teach is that we make it appear that what is known is set in stone and final, but it is always growing,” he says. “There is so much we don’t know… being interested in something helps you go a long way.” He strives to stimulate a love of learning in his classroom by encouraging questions and breaking up his lectures with interesting tidbits. “Sometimes it’s medical” or sometimes it is “how an animal does a thing in a weird way,” he says. Other times he will have students take out their laptops and phones in class and answer questions via an app for their participation grade. “It helps keep them active. It gets them to work together,” explains Velhagen. This spring semester, Velhagen is teaching a new honors course, “Evolution’s Lessons,” for students in all academic programs. “It will be great to bring in perspective from the humanities and the social sciences,” he said. “Beyond the science of evolution, I have to think, ‘What is the historical context and what are the cultural implications?’”

Velhagen firmly believes that knowing about science is foundational to a good liberal arts education and to the betterment of society. “Altruism and science” go hand in hand. “It’s about making things better for the greater good, for society as a whole… It’s about giving students the ability to go to good schools, to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to get work.” Every educated citizen should know how science works, because it has the potential to create inventions to make new discoveries that will help the rest of humanity, he says. Education works, he stresses, when people can use their talents, when the economy is working because people have the skills they need. “Directly or indirectly, education helps us all.”  

—CL

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Students Intern With Professional Scientists

Shreyoshi Hossain received first-place in the poster competition at her internship site at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Summer Undergraduate Research Program.
Roksana Korbi took part in the Premedical Urban Leaders Summer Enrichment Program at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University
Marina Schlaepfer had a summer fellowship at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Anschutz Medical Campus.
Foujan Moghimi interned at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. She was chosen to participate in the JH Bloomberg School of Public Health Diversity Summer Internship Program. She is pictured here with Dr. Barbara Detrick, an alum, and professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins.
Joy Choi interned at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the research branch of the Northwell Health enterprise in Manhasset, New York.

Caldwell, N.J., Aug. 21, 2018 – Several students in Caldwell’s Natural and Physical Sciences Department spent the summer interning with professional scientists.

Shreyoshi Hossain, a biology and chemistry major, received the first-place prize in the poster competition at her internship site at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Summer Undergraduate Research Program. She focused her poster on the research she did investigating the absorption of a compound that could be a cure for blindness, skin disorders and seizures for newborns and people of different ages. “It was fascinating to work hands-on looking for discoveries that can improve people’s health,” said Hossain. She is grateful to her mentor, Martin-Paul Agbaga, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and the Dean McGee Eye Institute at Oklahoma University, and to the other personnel in the lab.  “It is so important to have a good lab mentor,” she said.

Marina Schlaepfer, a biology major and a member of the women’s volleyball team, had a summer fellowship at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Anschutz Medical Campus. She researched colorectal cancer, focusing on a targeted therapy drug with chemotherapeutic agents in a project funded by the Infinite Monkey Theorem wine company. Schlaepfer, a sophomore, was thrilled to be able to engage with the oncologists, research assistants and all the “brilliant scientists” dedicated to researching cancer or caring for the patient. Some of the drugs she helped research will be used in phase one of a colorectal cancer clinical trial, and she was happy she could meet some of the patients. Schlaepfer said she learned that it takes a good deal of dedication to the research or clinical aspects of health care to be successful. “The journey to become a doctor is tough, but the fellowship has made me want to work even harder.” She is especially grateful to her mentor, Dr. Todd Pitts, assistant research professor at the Division of Medical Oncology at the University of Colorado, and to the staff of the Messersmith and Pitts Laboratories.

Foujan Moghimi interned at the world-renowned teaching and biomedical hospital Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. She was chosen to participate in the JH Bloomberg School of Public Health Diversity Summer Internship Program. A biology and psychology major with a chemistry minor, Moghimi worked with alumna Dr. Barbara Detrick, professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and professor at the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Moghimi   worked on a project titled “Evaluation of Cytokines in Hepatitis E Viral Infection” with Detrick and Dr. John Hooks.  The internship helped her appreciate the public health field and how she could combine that area with her interests in medicine. Dr. Detrick  formed the partnership between Caldwell and Johns Hopkins a few years ago.

For a second summer, Roksana Korbi, a biology major and chemistry minor, took part in the Premedical Urban Leaders Summer Enrichment Program at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University to learn about urban health. In phase two of the program, she shadowed a physical therapist, a neurologist, a radiation oncologist, a hematologist and other health professionals. The most exciting experience was observing a live hysterectomy performed by Dr. David Warshal, head of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Cooper University Health Care. She observed how he used the cutting-edge technology of the DaVinci robot for the surgery. “The program coordinators were invested in allowing us to grow personally and professionally as future health professionals,” said Korbi.

Joy Choi, a biology major and chemistry minor, interned at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the research branch of the Northwell Health enterprise in Manhasset, New York. She researched a drug that could delay the blood cancer lymphocytic leukemia. “What was most meaningful to me was knowing that I am somehow contributing to treat a terrible disease.”

Several of the internships provided workshops so students could prepare for the MCATs, graduate school and careers.  The students said the Caldwell biology and chemistry lectures gave them good foundations for their internships. “The program and professors in Caldwell’s Science Department have challenged me to go further and really enjoy science,” said Choi. “It was very important for me to know how to calculate concentrations. Thank you, Dr. Squires,” said Schlaepfer.

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Steven Han: The Dream of Medical School Becomes a Reality

Steven Han Caldwell University Graduate receiving his degree on Bachelor's of Arts in Biology from the president of Caldwell University Dr. Nancy Blattner.

Steven Han’s first exposure to medicine was when he fainted in kindergarten.  There were other sign markers pointing the way towards a career in healthcare.   His grandfather was a doctor; he excelled in science and math in high school and he had an interest in biology. “A culmination of experiences led me to believe that a career in medicine was the only job fit for me,” said Han, who received  a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology from Caldwell University on May 20.

This summer Han takes a big step in that journey towards becoming a doctor when he begins attending Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University.  Being accepted validated his undergraduate efforts and he is happy that his medical school will be close to Caldwell.

During his undergraduate years, he learned the value of research and presented at the Independent College Fund of New Jersey and at Caldwell’s Creative and Research Day.  He is grateful to Dr. Agnes Berki, associate professor of biology, mentoring him on his independent research  for topics such as “Investigation of Microorganisms on Smartphones,” (basically the gross stuff on your phone) and “The Use of Fecal Microbiota Transplant in Treating Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.” The professors at Caldwell are what made his experience incredibly special.

“My mentors here not only taught me how to excel in my studies but went far and well beyond their role as just teachers and guided me to develop professionally,  said Han who is from Reisterstown, Maryland.

He appreciated Caldwell’s Catholic Dominican foundation which gave him the ability to thrive in an environment dedicated to helping him see the value of service. He participated in Midnight runs to reach out to the homeless in New York City, which he says was “a unique, humbling experience,” and he was grateful for Caldwell’s commitment to embracing diversity. “I was able to expose myself to a number of cultures which will undoubtedly help me in the real world after graduation.”

Han was involved in community service as a member of the campus Circle K club and served on the Student Government Association Academic Affairs Committee.   At honors convocation he  received the C-Pin award for the senior class. The award goes to an exemplary student who was nominated by his or her peers.

Through his many experiences and his studies, his interests and passion for medicine were reaffirmed.   Caldwell helped him  reflect on his purpose as a student and his place in the world.  He looks forward to determining his medical specialty and “eventually settling down to start a family.” Most of all he is grateful to his peers, professors and faculty. “It has been the best four years of my life.”

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Michelle Eng ‘18: I have grown to be a leader

Michelle Eng, 2020 Caldwell University graduate , standing and smiling with her Bachelor of Arts degree in biology.

The aptitude tests at East Brunswick High School started Michelle Eng thinking about occupational therapy as a field. She shadowed occupational therapists during summers and saw how happy the patients were and how welcoming the therapists were to the clients.

Upon entering college, Eng was not sure if she should major in psychology or biology. After taking her first biology class with Dr. William Velhagen, chair of the Natural and Physical Sciences Department, she felt motivated to keep going. “I’ve never felt so much support, except from my family, as I have with the faculty (here),” she says, reciting the names of the science department professors. “I’m thankful to the faculty for all they have given me.”

Eng graduated from Caldwell University May 20, earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in biology in just three years since she entered Caldwell with AP credits and worked hard. Besides her academics, she has learned about herself during her college career—about who she wants to become. “I’ve grown to be a leader.” And the Caldwell community endorsed that status when at honors convocation she received the Excellence in Leadership Award and departmental honors in the Natural and Physical Sciences Department.   She served as president of the Circle K Club, as vice president of the Health Professions and Earth clubs and as secretary for the Anime club. Eng also worked as a lab assistant and in campus safety at the desk in Rosary Hall.

“I’ve learned to stand up for myself more, to be more ambitious. I have had many firsts here.” That includes applying for her first scholarship, with the help of Dr. Agnes Berki, associate professor of biology. That award was the Independent College Fund of New Jersey’s Becton Dickinson Scholarship for Students Pursing Careers in Health Care. “It was my first outside of a school scholarship.” Other scholarships followed. “It empowered me to go for any opportunity available so that I can truly see how far I can go.”

Eng cherishes the friendships she has made at Caldwell including her international student friends. “So many people from so many places,” she says. “It is hard to leave because I have built such a place here.” Yet she is looking forward to the next great adventure in life—excited to be attending graduate school in the fall to work on her master’s in occupational therapy.   “Because of Caldwell University, I have a future in occupational therapy that I have been looking forward to for three years.”