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 Haley MacDonald, a rising Senior, from Wilton, Connecticut, majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She’s always been interested in science, but it wasn’t until high school that she began to seriously consider a degree in the life sciences. “I can still remember the biology lab where we looked at onion cells through a microscope,” said Haley. “It amazed me that there was so much of the world that we couldn’t see.” Through the chemistry courses she took Haley also began to develop a fascination with chemical reactions, saying “It almost felt like magic to me.” It was Haley’s AP Chemistry teacher, Ms. Rinaldi, who really encouraged her to pursue her interests in both biology and chemistry by studying biochemistry in college.
Haley’s interest in attending Penn State was immediate. “I applied to Penn State without even stepping foot on campus! Penn State seemed to have a lot of what I was looking for in a college: fantastic science programs, great research opportunities, lots of school spirit, a large alumni network, and a supportive academic environment,” said Haley. The first time she came to the University Park Campus was for her Accepted Student’s Day and she immediately fell in love with the University. “I can’t image being anywhere else,” she said.
During the summer after her first year at Penn State Haley became a certified EMT in her home state of Connecticut. It was through this experience that she truly cemented her interest in the healthcare industry. “Learning about anatomy and science, as it applies to the human body, helped to confirm my interest in practicing medicine in the future,” said Haley.
As part of her EMT training, Haley continued to learn more about medicine by shadowing healthcare professionals in Norwalk Hospital’s emergency room, located in Norwalk, Connecticut. There she learned under the guidance of her EMT instructor, Chandra Brodnax-Niño, who also worked at the hospital as an Emergency Room Technician and Respiratory Therapist. Haley assisted in basic patient care, extending up to the scope of care permitted by her EMT-B Certification, doing things such as taking vital signs, restocking rooms, assisting in the moving of patients, and making patients more comfortable.
Currently entering her senior year at Penn State, Haley works as an undergraduate researcher in the Thomas Laboratory under the guidance of Associate Professor of Biology, and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Claire Thomas. The Thomas Laboratory asks the fundamental questions regarding the roles of the cytoskeleton at the cell membrane in epithelial cells, including issues of cell polarity and adhesion, cell signaling, and morphogenesis. Due to the multidisciplinary combination of tools available and its well-characterized development, the laboratory uses Drosophila as its model system and utilizes both molecular and cellular techniques, as well as classical and transgenic genetic approaches in its research.
Haley’s research is focused on the insertion of a construct into the ꞵHeavy spectrin gene, utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 technology. The construct will provide a docking site to accurately insert further mutations into the ꞵHeavy spectrin, allowing for transitions between wild-type, or unmutated version of a gene, and mutant ꞵHeavy spectrin within the same tissue, and allowing easier examination of the effects of a specific mutation in ꞵHeavy. Spectrin is a cytoskeletal protein which lines the intracellular side of the plasma membrane within eukaryotic cells, including Drosophila melanogaster cells.
Because spectrin forms tetramers to support the shape of the cell membrane in eukaryotic cells, any mutation in the protein that could affect the structure of spectrin within the cell can impact not only cell shape, but a number of other cellular processes. With mutations in spectrin shown to lead to different disorders in humans, including neurological disorders and anemia, having this construct inserted would make it much easier for researchers to study the effects of different mutations in Drosophila.
Haley has also gained valuable experience as a Learning Assistant throughout her undergraduate career. She began as a Learning Assistant during her Sophomore year when she helped teach a calculus course taught by Assistant Teaching Professor, Eric Simring. “I found a real passion for teaching the material and using different techniques to explain complex concepts to students. I realized that I really did enjoy helping students understand concepts,” said Haley. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a student have a “lightbulb moment” after helping them through their struggles with the material.” As a junior she again served as a Learning Assistant for Microbiology 201, Introduction to Microbiology, working with Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Timothy Miyashiro. “Helping students understand the foundational concepts of microbiology and molecular biology was not only rewarding, as I had the opportunity to help students early on in their studies of my own major, but it also helped to strengthen the foundation I had for my own understanding of biochemistry,” said Haley.
Outside of the classroom and laboratory, Haley spends her time pursuing her interests in music, linguistics, and community outreach. Since elementary school, Haley has played multiple musical instruments, mostly focusing on the alto saxophone and bass clarinet. Throughout her time in public school she participated in multiple musical groups including marching, concert, and jazz bands. After coming to Penn State, she searched for ways to continue her pursuit of music. She found her answer in Penn State’s Concert Band, where she is currently a bass clarinetist. Haley has found music to be a way to relax and reduce stress, and also enjoys the experience of performing with an ensemble.
Haley also has an interest in linguistics, specifically Spanish. She has taken multiple Spanish courses at Penn State and has developed her understanding of the language and its structure. Along with her degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Haley plans to graduate earn a minor in Spanish next Spring. “I hope to be able to use my knowledge of Spanish in the healthcare industry in the future, allowing me to more effectively treat patients of all backgrounds,” says Haley.
Haley is also passionate about her work within the community, and specifically her work as a member of the special interest organization, Springfield. Springfield’s mission is to fundraise for THON. The groups tenacity and innovation has made it a leader within the THON community with the group consistently ranking among top Special Interest Organizations. Some of activities the group engages in are fundraisers include canvasing, date auctions, casino nights, restaurant fundraisers, and boxing. “I joined in my Freshman year and it has been such a rewarding experience in so many ways. Having the opportunity to get to know Springfield’s four amazing THON families and their challenges and hardships in dealing with childhood cancer has been a privilege,” she says. “These families—the Colons, the Robertsons, the Schopfs, and the Silbaughs—truly show all of us what strength, wisdom, honesty, and courage really look like. It is an experience that has shaped my life and my aspirations.”
After Haley graduates from Penn State next Spring, she is planning to take spend a year gaining clinical and patient care experience so that she can better understand health care delivery before she attends medical school. “This pandemic has further exposed vast differences in access to healthcare across this country and I hope to be able to work to ensure more people have access to health services no matter where they live,” says Haley. Although she is not sure where she plans to attend medical school, Haley hopes to specialize in a field that will allow her to incorporate her love for studying genetics with her passion for public health and community outreach.
No matter her path, we are sure that Haley will surely leave her mark, and a lasting impact, on the world! We are very proud of her and are fortunate to have her as a part of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department!