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Why I Majored in Molecular Biology

Nicah Driza ’21

When I first moved to the U.S. from the Philippines at 7-years-old, I knew, with my Powerpuff Girls backpack strapped to my back, that I would change the world. Growing up, that led to many different possibilities – becoming a lawyer, a musician, a diplomat or a teacher. It wasn’t until high school when I realized that it could also mean being a scientist.

At Pomona, I am extremely lucky and grateful to have been able to find a supportive community, through my classmates and my professors. From my first genetics and general chemistry lecture, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to stay in STEM, and I initially decided to major in biology. However, the summer after my first year, I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks at a lab in Boston at Tufts Medical School. I worked in Dr. Andrew Bohm’s lab attempting to make progress in solving the crystal structure of HRI, a heme-regulated inhibitor kinase, and a possible anti-cancer agent. I spent my days in lab grappling the basics of crystallography, optimizing crystallization conditions, and learning how to use the x-ray source we had in the lab.

I knew then that I wanted to delve deeper into the field of structural biology and biochemistry, so after getting advice from my student mentors and professors, I reached out to Professor Matthew Sazinsky and started working on a new crystallography and biochemistry project. I am currently working with RHA-P, an alpha-rhamnosidase enzyme that has the ability to make flavonoids (natural products that have antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties!) biologically available to the human body. Reflecting on my research experiences and taking note of what really excites me has made me realize that molecular biology is the major for me. From genetics to biochemistry to molecular biology lab, I have enjoyed the challenge and information my classes provide. They have taught me to appreciate the little things that we take for granted, and partly because we don’t always know they’re happening! As a molecular biology major, I am able to study how small molecules have a big impact. Even though I don’t have my Powerpuff Girls backpack anymore, I am just as confident that I will be able to make a positive impact to my community in the future.

Shaheed Muhammad ’21

Ever since I can remember, medicine and the human body have been sources of pure enchantment for me. Growing up with a disabled mother, I was thrown into the world of medicine from a very young age. This interest in the human body and understanding its workings led to me diving head first into biology at an early age. Throughout middle school and high school my favorite courses were always directly related to biology. I truly love understanding life, or more specifically how our bodies function on a cellular and molecular level. I believe understanding molecular biology will ultimately help me understand the very fabric of our being as humans.

Coming to college I knew I wanted to study biology and music, but I was taken by surprise when I genuinely enjoyed my chemistry courses as well. This mixed with the fact that my favorite biology classes were intertwined with chemistry, pushed me towards the molecular biology major. I initially thought I would just study biology, but all of my favorite courses focused on biology in a cellular or molecular light. After recognizing this, I talked to the faculty in the department, and that is when I truly knew where I belonged. The molecular biology staff are incredibly supportive and kind. From the intro classes to the upper division courses, they are always here for you whenever you need assistance, guidance, counsel or just a friendly conversation.

In order to further explore modern medicine, I wanted to work in the beginning steps of medicine—lab research—so for my freshman summer, I obtained a research position at Tufts Medical School through the incredible staff at Pomona. Over the summer I worked in the lab of doctor Phillip Hinds and worked towards understanding how CDK6 knockout mice were resistant to left ventricular hypertrophy, and thus also resistant to heart disease. This research aims to find new medicine to help prevent and treat heart disease (which I found extremely interesting all around). In the lab I was able to do things that would cause childhood me to drop his jaw and stare in awe. These procedures included performing echocardiography of mice, analyzing the bodies of cancer ridden mice, culturing primary cells, and performing surgeries on mice to insert osmotic pumps.

Majoring in molecular biology has not only given me a better understanding of the foundations of human life, but also gives me a strong foundation academically, professionally and socially.

Brenda Wong ’21

From a young age, I honestly never considered going into science; I was more interested in the careers of the people around me, such as being a lawyer or a teacher. However, in high school, I met amazing science teachers who made biology sound magical. Although those classes were difficult, I was intrigued and wanted to dive deeper. My fate as a biologist was sealed when I was able to make biotechnology school kits at Amgen; although all I did was make simple buffers and agarose gels, it was fascinating enough that made me want to pursue a career in science. After I graduated high school, I was able to do research as a summer fellow at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute for eight weeks, focusing on the cardiotoxic effects of cancer treatments in mice. There, I got a taste of what it meant to be a researcher: Running assays, collecting and analyzing data to create a cohesive conclusion to present to others in hopes that my work would make a difference.

Coming to Pomona, I thought I would become a biology major. However, after taking Intro to Genetics with my advisor Professor Clarissa Cheney, I realized genetics was an area I would like to do research in; genetics itself is a very broad term but it’s the foundation of how our bodies are built and run, which intriguing in and of itself. From a quick Google search, I realized that going into genetics would require a stronger chemistry background—thus, I became a molecular biology major. Being a molecular biology major was something I never imagined myself doing, yet it has become something that I can only see myself doing.

A great thing I love about this major is that I get the resources and the support of two great departments—biology and chemistry; that’s double the professors I can meet! Last summer, I started doing research with Professor Cheney, in which I was looking at different genes in relation to cell adhesion molecules in drosophila. Doing research at Pomona has made me excited for the future research I’ll do in graduate school and in my career. Additionally, studying abroad at the University of Melbourne has also given me a chance to take more genetics courses and as much as I love genetics, it’s a bit daunting to see how much has already discovered, and yet there is much more to be discovered and understood. Nevertheless, I’m confident I’ll leave Pomona prepared to face the world of genetic anomalies and make impactful research discoveries.

Chloe Boudreau ’23

Since a young age, I have always loved learning and was consumed with an insatiable curiosity for science. I was endlessly reading and attempting to memorize my favorite childhood books about parts of the human body. In the years since I have developed a strong passion and deep fascination with applied science. I was immediately drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of molecular biology because it combined my two favorite subjects: biology and chemistry, into a unique and multifaceted field. After many conversations with my advisor, Professor Edward Crane, we decided that by majoring in molecular biology, I would be able to study material that genuinely excites me such as gene regulation, biochemical processes, signaling, mechanisms of mismatch DNA repair, and keep all my options open for postgraduate studies.

The Molecular Biology Department professors and students are an invaluable resource and support system; always available to answer my questions and provide me with endless advice and direction. The molecular biology faculty are so passionate and devoted to the department and eager to share their expertise and knowledge.

Currently, I have an internship as a research assistant in the General Surgery Research Department at Massachusetts General Hospital where I work on updating the Colorectal Cancer Database. As a research assistant, I review medical records of patients and input data about their tumor pathology, cancer progression and comorbidities, any neoadjuvant/adjuvant treatments pursued, and more, to support studies relating to colorectal cancer. After learning about the mutations that predispose colorectal cancer and the relation between certain mutations and tumors, I’m eager to further explore the mechanisms that cause genetic mutations, the pathways that ultimately lead to cancer, and the ability of different treatments to inhibit these pathways. This research together with my studies at Pomona will enable me to combine my academic studies with actual patient outcomes while diving deeply into complex issues within molecular biology.

The molecular biology major has allowed me to further my academic trajectory by improving my problem-solving and writing skills all while allowing me to challenge myself academically. By majoring in molecular biology, I am constantly exploring what I am capable of academically and developing new ideas that will be critically beneficial throughout my academic and professional career.

Dolores Fritszche ’22

My passion for science initially grew from my desire to go into medicine. However, as I progressed through my biology courses in high school, I became more interested in how basic research could eventually lead to the understanding and prevention of disease.

I came into Pomona as a biology major, but it wasn’t until taking general chemistry with Professor Fred Grieman during my first semester that I realized how much I also enjoyed learning about chemistry! At around this same time, I ended up attending a course registration event held by the molecular biology liaisons and was drawn to how supportive and welcoming the department appeared to be. It took me another year to fully commit to the major, but after completing my first semester, I knew that molecular biology was the right major for me!

In the summer of 2019, I interned in the Integrated Therapies Laboratory at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute in Portland, Oregon. Specifically, I worked on a project involving a protein complex called the inflammasome, which has been found to play a significant role in the innate immune response. Using cell lines and murine models, we developed a model of inflammasome activation in macrophages under a variety of conditions in order to investigate the link between the secretion of specific inflammatory cytokines and the promotion of various tumor types. This experience was critical in introducing me to the broad range of scientific research being done in the intersecting fields of immunology and cancer biology and allowed me to envision myself pursuing a career in research.

From Cell Biology to Organic Chemistry to Biochemistry, all of my science classes at Pomona have been incredibly engaging and intellectually stimulating. Molecular biology is by no means an easy major, but with every new class I attend, I am able to better understand how the numerous chemical and biological pathways in our bodies interact with each other to create life. As a researcher, I also desire to understand the molecular mechanisms behind disease and explore how infectious diseases interact with our immune system. The material and techniques covered in my lecture and laboratory courses have helped me not only develop as a learner, but also as a scientist, and I am certain that majoring in molecular biology has set me up for success in graduate school and beyond!

Sayde Perry ’22

Arriving at Pomona I knew I loved biology, but I had never taken a chemistry class before. With a bit of trepidation, I signed up for an introductory chemistry class, mostly because it was a prerequisite for a cell biology class. I ended up loving it! I felt so simultaneously challenged and supported, and doing chemistry became a part of my daily routine. It was just as, if not more, difficult as I had expected, but I never felt like I was on my own. In the summer after my first year, I started researching in a molecular biology lab at Pomona. In the lab, I was introduced to and mentored by older molecular biology students who eagerly described the major to me and encouraged me to consider it. Molecular biology would allow me to continue exploring the mystifying world of chemistry while also grounding me in the biological themes that excite me. While I would have never guessed that I would end up majoring in molecular biology, I am so glad I did. I have loved all of my molecular biology courses—from organic chemistry, to developmental biology, to biochemistry, and I cannot wait for all the classes I have left.

All of the students and faculty in the Molecular Biology Department are absolutely incredible. There are so many layers of support weaved into the molecular biology program that all contribute to the engaging and collaborative environment that makes this department so special. While my classes have been challenging and have pushed me to ask questions, I have always felt that there are people who are eager to help—from my class mentors, to the department liaisons, to my professors.

I have had the privilege of being fully immersed in the research world at Pomona. I have been working with Professor Jane Liu since the summer after my first year at Pomona. In her lab, I study Vibrio cholerae—the Gram-negative pathogenic bacteria that causes cholera disease. I began my research by studying how V. cholerae can survive and persist in aquatic environments and the human host by adapting to different carbon source availability. Namely, using qRT-PCR and western blot analyses, I sought to determine whether CRP and Cra—two transcription factors—work together or independently to impact fructose operon regulation.

Since then, I have expanded my work with V. cholerae by conducting a literature review on vibriophages—a topic new to the Liu Lab. My review was entitled, “Understanding the tripartite relationship between Vibrio cholerae, ICP1, and PLEs.” PLEs are a family of viral satellites integrated in the V. cholerae small chromosome, and ICP1 is a prominent vibriophage. I uncovered the series of mechanisms used by PLEs and ICP1 as they fight for survival. I also identified gaps in knowledge relating to protein interactions between PLEs and ICP1 and developed a research plan by which I could investigate these gaps. Since writing my literature review, I have continued reading literature—this time, focusing on the materials and methods sections of papers to gain insight into the specific techniques that are widely used for bacteriophage discovery, isolation, and purification. I plan on using this information to propose and plan initial bacteriophage experiments that we can run in my lab.

Through this work and the constant support of Professor Liu, I have realized an enduring love for reading scientific literature, developing research questions, and carrying out laboratory work—a love that will surely influence my long-term career plans.

Ysabella Alcaraz ’22

The thought of molecular biology seemed incredibly daunting at first. I recall my first encounter with me sitting in my AP Biology class learning about virology. Studying viral behavior engrossed my attention as these infinitesimal beings were neither considered as living nor dead - they simply existed! I became curious as to how it would come to be. The following year took me to a college environment as a dual enrollment student surrounded by a sea of students in a General Chemistry 1 lab where colorful beakers of solvents and solutions cluttered the space. I wanted to learn more about how biology and chemistry intertwined and were not separate entities in my future years of schooling.

My first year at Pomona proved to be a year of exploration and challenges. I always juggled between the thought of being a biology or a molecular biology major. After my genetics class taught by Professor Lenny Seligman, I decided to home in on my interest in molecular biology through Professor Sara Olson’s Cell Biology class and lab when I volunteered in her laboratory and investigated the role of two eggshell proteins in Caenorhabditis elegans. In the following summer, I decided to participate in the Building Diversity in the Biomedical Sciences Program at the Tufts Medical School. I worked with Dr. Carol Kumamoto to explore the roles of two transcription factors, Czf1 and Sef1, that elicited an invasive filamentation response in the gastrointestinal yeast Candida albicans, which causes infections such as vaginitis and thrush. Here I found that Sef1 might be significant in the expression of the CFL5 gene directly responsible for filamentation. I presented my research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students Fall 2019. It was an invigorating, yet intimidating experience. It was then when it clicked that I had to major in molecular biology. So, I revisited my first experience in the laboratory with Professor Olson’s C. elegans project from the last semester going into the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semester.

Over the course of my time at Pomona College, both in-person and virtually, majoring in molecular biology was one of the best decisions that I made. The small joys of assays going smoothly, all the way through finding significant data that leads to more questions are what makes it worthwhile. Most importantly, it is the connections that are made with professors and classmates along the way that help build a solid foundation in my future career.

Fernando Bolio ’22

Since I was little, I have always been enamored by science and attempting to understand how the body functions, one cell at a time. Our bodies are comprised of so many complex systems and interactions it would take centuries or millennia of research and experiments to understand every facet of ourselves. Personally, I’ve always been interested in examining the minute, focusing on the way that human behavior can be impacted through small changes in protein or molecule expression and how widespread that small change can be. Entering Pomona, I knew that I would major in either molecular biology or neuroscience. Unable to double major, I spoke with professors from both departments who guided me into choosing molecular biology as my major with a focus in neuroscience. This path allowed me to choose the best of both worlds, allowing me to focus on the minute systems underlying the brain while also providing a solid academic foundation to enter graduate school and explore to my heart’s desire. I believe that every mental illness has a basis in biological behavior, and with the knowledge and tools provided with the molecular biology major, I hope to contribute to our understanding of the brain’s mechanisms of action.

I love how this major provides a solid pathway to learn about molecular biology in the area of your choosing. Once you pass the introductory courses, the field opens and you’ll see boundless possibilities and opportunities for you to explore. No matter your focus, there are a variety of courses and electives that will satisfy your curiosity. I also extremely appreciate the relationships that I’ve established with professors of the department. They are incredibly supportive and love having conversations with students, even if it’s not about their classes or research. The best moments I’ve had with my professors are the ones in which we sat down for lunch or during office hours and talked about how things were going in our lives, with no focus on anything academically related.

Entering Pomona, I was extremely interested in working in a laboratory doing research as I’ve never had the opportunity before. Luckily, I found a position in Professor Lenny Seligman’s lab the second semester of my first year that I continued through the summer in a SURP. The project involved creating a novel system to engineer homing endonucleases to cut DNA sequences of our choosing, allowing us to target genes in a similar fashion to CRISPR. To accomplish this, we modified an established system known as PACE to work with I-CREI, a homing endonuclease, to allow it to go through several hundred rounds of evolution. Creating this system would be invaluable in the future of gene editing as it could provide an alternative to CRISPR and help provide solutions to genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia. This research was extremely fascinating to learn about and develop, and through my time in the lab, I gained valuable techniques and the experience to troubleshoot and figure out solutions to problems in the lab.

I hope to come back to Pomona one day as a professor and guide future students on their path. I want to leave a positive impact on the lives of students and offer the same support, generosity and kindness that my professors have given me.

José Carranza ’22

I chose to major in molecular biology because it is the major that is most in line with my career goal of becoming a practicing physician. I get to study how God designed life as we know it!

This major allows students to interact with professors from both the Chemistry and Biology Departments! Not only that, but we get exclusive access to three academic buildings... that's four extra lounges you can study in!

The professors in this department and the Chemistry department make it all worth it! They are amazing!

Ciannah Correa ’22

I chose to major in molecular biology because it was the perfect intersection between my love of biology and understanding the human body with my enjoyment of chemistry and understanding life on a cellular level.

I really enjoy the major because it allows me to establish a strong foundation in biology and chemistry that can be applied to better understand a lot of upper division courses like immunology, for example, which I don't think I would be able to fully appreciate or understand had I not taken organic chemistry and biochemistry, which are required in the molecular biology major. I hope to go into a career in healthcare and the major is perfect because it has allowed me to take many courses that have deepened my understanding of life and the processes that support it while exposing me to many people and professors who care deeply about me and my progress towards my career goals. It makes networking that much easier and is definitely a great place to find a good recommender because of the time I’ve spent in office hours one-on-one with professors to better understand material.

I had the opportunity to do research at CalTech (pre-COVID) in the Bronner Lab studying embryonic neural crest development. My project revolved around understanding the role of the NACC2 gene in cardiac neural crest development and what role it plays in the gene regulatory network. I used CRISPR-Cas9 to create a unilateral mutation in chick embryos, which allowed me to compare the left and right sides of the same specimen to determine if the NACC2 knockout was effective and if it caused any changes to the development on the knockout side of the embryo. I was the first person in the lab to study this gene, so it was super exciting to know that all of my preliminary research truly was novel and would set the stage for further research on the gene when my results demonstrated it had influence on two important genes involved in neural crest development and differentiation. I also was able to volunteer in Professor Sara Olson’s lab as early as second semester freshman year, and I know many professors are more than welcoming to students who want to do research in their labs. It is a great way to get some experience and establish a relationship with great professors!

The chemistry and molecular biology major students take many very difficult classes together and one of the things I love most about Pomona's science departments is the emphasis on camaraderie and collaboration. When we go to mentor sessions, I know that everyone in that room is willing to help me understand the material I don't understand in the same way that I am willing to help others with material I do understand. Professors work hard to foster a sense of community because they understand that the courses are difficult, and this mindset helps everyone in the long run. It has been especially important to me because it helps eradicate the detrimental overly-competitive nature of the sciences to encourage us to get better and smarter together rather than pushing others down for our own gain. We all look out for each other and that collaboration is probably my favorite part of being a molecular biology major at Pomona.