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Undergraduate Programs
BMB Features: Cassidy Prince
Image of Cassidy Prince

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department is proud to be called home to some of the most outstanding undergraduate students in higher education.  These students display a high level of dedication, not only in furthering their education but in their desire to be on the frontlines of scientific discovery.  

Meet Cassidy Prince, a rising Senior, from Millersburg, Pennsylvania, majoring in Microbiology.  While in both middle and high schools she competed in the anatomy and physiology event for each school’s Science Olympiad.  The competition required her to study several systems of the human body, and the diseases that affected them.  “Though only a small portion of the competition was about diseases, my enthusiasm in that area had me spending a disproportionate amount of time studying them,” Cassidy said.  “This inspired me to pursue a degree in the medical sciences.”

Like all prospective students interested in coming Penn State, Cassidy looked to sign up for a tour of the university.  Cassidy decided that the regular tour the University schedules for students wasn’t exactly what she was looking for and instead researched different faculty across the University.  She reached out to Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Frank Dorman, whose research focused on molecular toxicology, and asked to meet with him regarding his research as well as student opportunities at Penn State.  Impressed by her initiative, he accepted Cassidy’s request and invited her to University Park for a tour of his laboratory.  

During Cassidy’s tour, Dorman discussed with her the many programs, course offerings and majors that required two years of similar instruction that were available at Penn State.  The course offerings, programs and opportunities to receive hands-on training that Cassidy learned about while talking with Dorman and various other members of his laboratory, really stood out to her.  In addition, she also learned from Dorman’s students about Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College and its many offerings.  “Dr. Dorman and his lab’s graduate students were instrumental in my decision to come to Penn State,” said Cassidy.

Originally Cassidy came to University Park, for her first year, as a Science Pre-Major.  Having a vague idea that she wanted to pursue a career working with diseases and toxins, she intended to declare her major as Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  During her second semester at Penn State Cassidy enrolled in an introductory microbiology lecture, with a corresponding laboratory component.  The Lecture was taught by Senior lecturer, Steven Keating, and the laboratory by Associate Teaching Professor, Gregory Broussard, and it’s where, as Cassidy puts it, she “realized just how interesting bacteria were.”  Soon after, Cassidy changed her major to Microbiology.

 

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Image of Cassidy Prince alongside her faculty advisor Jasna Kovac
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Image of Cassidy Prince next to graduate student Naomi Niyah
From left to right:
Dr. Jessie Vipham, Dr. Jasna Kovac, and Cassidy Prince
From left to right:
Cassidy Prince and Naomi Niyah

Along with her course work, Cassidy also works in the, Department of Food Science, Kovac Laboratory under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Food Science, Jasna Kovac.  There alongside Naomi Niyah, a Ph.D. candidate in Penn State’s Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences Program, she studies the virulence of species in the Bacillus cereus group.  By analyzing whole-genome sequences, cytotoxicity data, and other metadata she hopes to identify methods of increasing food safety and decreasing food waste.  

The Bacillus cereus group includes 18 genetically similar bacterial species.  Although their genetics are similar, each species’ phenotypic characteristics are surprisingly diverse. Some species of the Bacillus cereus group are pathogenic, and can cause vomiting or diarrheal illness, while others have been found to be helpful, and are used for bioinsecticides and probiotics.  Even though many strains of bacteria within the B. cereus group harbor some pathogenic toxin genes in their genome, not all strains actually use them.  Whole genome sequencing helps in differentiating between genetically similar species within the B. cereus group; however, it’s still difficult to determine the phenotype of a bacterium in the B. cereus group based on genetics alone.  Hence food products can be hastily disposed of if a specific level of B. cereus group species is present

Cassidy is helping to develop a better process for predicting the potential threat of a B. cereus group strain to humans in order to keep consumers safe. Through her research, she hopes to understand the connection between the genetics and phenotypic characteristics of B. cereus species.  Currently, Cassidy and Naomi, have collected, and analyzed, growth data and whole-genome sequences for approximately 300 isolates. They continue to work to obtain cytotoxicity data for each of the 300 strains, in order to determine the amount of damage done on colon cells in a lab setting.  “Learning more about what causes B. cereus group strains to utilize their toxin genes, and how often toxin gene presence correlates with true cytotoxicity, can help the food industry make more informed decisions on which food items are safe for consumption,” says Cassidy.

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Image of Cassidy Prince working with Ethiopian scientists as part of the ENSURE Project

After joining the Kovac Laboratory, Cassidy expressed her interest in global health to Dr. Kovac.  Upon learning of Cassidy’s interest, Kovac offered Cassidy the opportunity to work alongside her, and Ethiopian faculty, to create a food microbiology training program for Ethiopian scientists. In 2019 she was awarded a Schreyer Honors College Grant and travelled to Addis Ababa, as part of the ENSURE Project.  There she instructed a group of approximately 20 scientists on microbiology techniques for isolating bacteria and molecular biology techniques for confirming the identity of bacterial isolates obtained from milk. “Through this project, I realized just how many constraints there are on research in developing nations,” said Cassidy.

“The main concern of the ENSURE project in Ethiopia, is dairy safety and how it relates to the country’s dairy supply chain,” said Cassidy.  Dairy is important for Ethiopian cuisine and a large portion of the milk which is bought, sold, and consumed is raw, or unpasteurized.  Unfortunately, due to the lack of infrastructure, materials, and training necessary to track foodborne pathogens throughout the country’s supply chain, there is not much research being conducted with regards to dairy safety.

Image of Cassidy Prince working with Ethiopian scientists as part of the ENSURE Project
Cassidy Prince alongside her collaborative Ethiopian scientists 

 

The objective of the ENSURE Project is to identify the prevalence of several foodborne pathogens and locate their presence in the supply chain.  ENSURE’s overarching goal is to increase dairy safety in Ethiopia while building microbiology lab capacity, so food safety can be monitored more closely in Ethiopia, by Ethiopian researchers.  Cassidy was scheduled to return to Addis Ababa in March of 2020, but unfortunately due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic her trip was cancelled.  She hopes that before her graduation from Penn State that she will have the opportunity to make the trip once more.

Image of Cassidy as part of a group photo of the students and scientists that comprise the ENSURE Project
Cassidy Prince along with the group of Ethiopian researchers who attended
the training Cassidy conducted as part of the ENSURE Project

 

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Image of Cassidy Prince with other Global Brigade Students
Cassidy with other Global Brigade students at
a medical clinic in Panama

Outside of the laboratory, Cassidy has been involved in Penn State’s Chapter of Global Brigades, a non-profit organization focused on sustainably empowering communities in need.  The organization takes a holistic approach in order to encourage communities to support themselves.  Cassidy served on the Chapter’s medical subgroup and in 2018, during the winter break, she traveled to Panama to set up day-long free clinics at local high schools in different communities throughout the country.  Members of each community had the opportunity to come in and get their height, weight, and blood pressure checked. Cassidy worked alongside Panamanian doctors and pharmacists to provide additional medical assistance and recommendations to community members who visited the clinic.  One day in particular Cassidy and her group spent several hours in a community presenting their educational posters conducting activities for members of the community.  “Those that visited the clinics and poster session were extremely kind and happy to have us!” said Cassidy.  “It was an incredibly rewarding experience to speak with community members and learn their stories.”

 

 

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Image of Cassidy Prince with other Global Brigade Students

 

Cassidy’s experiences with the ENSURE Project and working with Global Brigades in Panama have helped her to realize the true importance of teaching, and just how rewarding it can be.  As a Junior, she was accepted by Lecturer Amber Miller as a Teaching Assistant for Microbiology 202, the same course that inspired her to pursue her degree in Microbiology.  She has been the Teaching Assistant for the course for the past year and heads into her third semester this Fall.  “This has been the perfect opportunity for me to grow as a teacher,” said Cassidy.  “I can prepare my own lectures, help individual students with techniques, and think on my feet to answer questions.”  Through her experience as a Teaching Assistant, she has been able to learn more about herself than she had ever expected. “Thanks to this opportunity, I know I will continue teaching throughout all of my graduate career and long afterward!” said Cassidy.

 

 

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Image of Cassidy Prince marching on the field with her saxophone as part of the Penn State Blue Band
Cassidy Prince, a member of the 
Penn State Blue Band

Music has been a large part of Cassidy’s life, having played the saxophone for 10 years, and because of this, she factored this in when deciding on what universities to consider.  “I needed a university with an excellent music program,” said Cassidy.  During the summer between her junior and senior year of high school, she was accepted into Penn State’s Honors Music Institute. As part of the Institute, she spent a week on the University Park Campus rehearsing with Professors Dennis Glocke and David Stambler, as well as an array of talented high school students. Cassidy came out of the experience a better musician and felt like a member of the Penn State family.  

As a First-Year student Cassidy became a part of another family at Penn State when she auditioned and became a member of the Penn State Blue Band.  “I have had the honor of marching with the Blue Band every year since,” says Cassidy.  In addition to her role as a member of the Penn State Blue Band, Cassidy has also played in Penn State’s Symphonic Band and has been a part of several saxophone quartets. 

 

 

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Image of Cassidy Prince in her Penn State Blue Band Uniform with a rubber duck

Cassidy with a rubber duck, the unofficial 
mascot of the saxophone section

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Image of Cassidy Prince taking part in a Penn State saxophone quartet

Cassidy as a member of a Penn State
Saxophone Quartet

This summer Cassidy had a breakthrough as to how she could integrate her love for the arts, teaching, and science in order to make an impact through creating science communication materials.  Since she was unable to physically work in the Kovac Laboratory this summer on her research, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been working from home creating informative animated videos, coloring pages, and crafts to inform others about food microbiology. “I hope my work will inform the public about food safety and encourage students to consider a career in microbiology!” says Cassidy.

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Image from left to right: Gabriella Pinto and Cassidy Prince at a science outreach event
Gabriella Pinto and Cassidy Prince at a science outreach event for elementary students.

No matter where she is, whether it be on the University Park Campus or in her hometown of Millersburg, Cassidy’s goals remain the same.  “My main goals in life are to always continue learning, benefit global health, and actively engage in my community,” says Cassidy.  After graduating from Penn State, she plans to pursue her Ph.D. in Microbiology, and hopes to remain involved in a music program throughout her graduate studies.  Ultimately, she hopes to spend her life teaching and conducting research.  Whether her career takes place in academia or in a government laboratory remains to be seen.  What we know for sure is that no matter what path Cassidy’s life and career takes, she will surely make an impact on science and in the world!