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Science Majors Received Drinko Research Grants

Posted on Friday, December 2, 2011

Six Westminster College science majors received undergraduate research grants from Westminster's Drinko Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Junior biochemistry major Katherine Farley is conducting research on "Understanding Wine Contamination by Studying a New Brettanomyces Recombinant Enzyme."  The work is supervised by Dr. Sarah Kennedy, Westminster assistant professor of chemistry.

Previous studies showed that a wild yeast protein contaminates wine, causing an unpleasant odor, but the structure of the protein has not been characterized, leaving the mechanism of contamination a mystery.  In the past year, Farley and Kennedy have cloned the protein and purified it.  They are working now to solve its structure to explain the mystery of the wine contamination.

The research also involves junior biochemistry majors Toby Bonitz and Rob McBride, who worked on protein purification.  Bonitz is continuing to work on developing a test for protein activity.

Farley is a daughter of Robert Farley of Bangor and Stephanie Farley of Belvidere, N.J., and a graduate of Bangor Area High School. 

Bonitz is a son of Laurie Castriota of New Freedom and Toby Bonitz of Shrewsbury and a graduate of Susquehannock High School.

McBride is a son of Robert and Maureen McBride of Boardman, Ohio, and a graduate of Boardman High School.

Contact Kennedy at (724) 946-7294 or email for additional information on this project.

Senior biology major Briana Isenberg is researching "Frequency of Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus on Westminster College Campus" under the supervision of Dr. Joseph Balczon, Westminster associate professor of biology.

Staphylococcus aureus (staph) and Escherichia coli (E.coli) are bacteria common to the human body.  Staph infections are the leading cause of patient deaths following surgery.  Drinking water is typically sampled for E.coli as an indicator of other harmful bacteria from fecal contamination. 

Isenberg's study investigated the role of non-porous surfaces in transmission of bacteria from person to person.  Samples were collected in common areas on campus and analyzed for positive bacterial growth.

Isenberg is a daughter of Gordon and Priscilla Isenberg of Huntingdon and a graduate of Huntingdon Area High School.

Contact Balczon at (724) 946-7215 or email for additional information on Isenberg's research.

Senior biochemistry major Justin Jones' research, "Trace Elements in Fingernails: Are Vegetarians at an Advantage?," is conducted under the supervision of Dr. Helen Boylan, Westminster associate professor of chemistry.

Jones is a son of Jeffrey and Norma Jones of Erie and a graduate of Fort Le Boeuf High School.

Contact Boylan at (724) 946-6293 or email for additional information on Jones' research.

Senior biology major Kristen Prezioso is conducting research on "Neuronal and Behavioral Effects of Parkinsonism-Inducing Neurotoxin, 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) on Zebrafish Larvae (Danio rerio)" under the supervision of Dr. Marosh Furimsky, Westminster assistant professor of biology.

MPTP is a synthetic heroin found to cause Parkinson's disease-like symptoms in injected humans and animals.  Prezioso's project studies the behavioral and neuronal effects of toxin exposure on the swimming velocity and response to tactile stimulation of zebrafish.  Since MPTP is linked to pesticides and herbicides, studies of the toxin provide insight on whether Parkinson's disease onset could be due to environmental factors.

Prezioso is a daughter of Gene and Rosemary Prezioso of Sharpsville and a graduate of Sharpsville High School.

Contact Furimsky at (724) 946-7207 or email for additional information on Prezioso's research.

Senior biology major Samantha Weston's research, "Natural and Chelate-Assisted Phytoremediation of Cadmium (Cd) by Eurasian Water Milfoil, Myriophyllum spicatum," is supervised by Dr. Ann Throckmorton, Westminster professor of biology.

Eurasian water milfoil, a freshwater aquatic plant, has been tested for phytoremediation of many toxic heavy metals including lead and zinc, but has rarely been tested for remediation of cadmium, commonly found in freshwater systems.  Weston's research sought to determine whether Eurasian water milfoil could be used to remove cadmium from a contaminated environment and whether that remediation could be improved by the addition of a chelate.

Results showed the plants did take up significant amounts of cadmium but the addition of the chelate did not affect the results.  Based on the research, the plant can be used effectively, inexpensively, and in an environmentally-conscious way to remove these toxic metals.

Weston is a daughter of Reid and Pamela Weston of Valencia and a graduate of Mars Area High School.

Senior biology major Jordan Zabo's project, "The Effects of Male-Produced Olfactory Cues and Host Density on the Sex Ratio of Jewel Wasps, Nasonia vitripennis, under Local Mate Competition," is advised by Throckmorton.

Female wasps can determine the gender of their offspring by deciding to fertilize the eggs (to produce females) or not (to produce males).  Zabo predicted that females who detected the scent of males in the environment would produce more female than male offspring, as those females could mate with existing males.  The results indicated that male-produced odors and the density of hosts available for females did have a significant effect on the sex ratio.

Zabo is a son of Daniel and Noellene Zabo of Marshall Township and a graduate of North Allegheny High School.

Contact Throckmorton at (724) 946-7209 or email for additional information on Weston's or Zabo's research.

The Drinko Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning was created to enrich undergraduate education at Westminster through advancing world-class teaching as well as by participating in collaborations that address community and regional needs including strengthening K-12 education.  The Undergraduate Research Initiative provides funding for students to conduct research and to present their research at regional and national conferences.  Click here for more information about the Drinko Center and its programs.