Science Students Chosen for Prestigious Research Program Exploring Rare Genetic Disease

Michelle Eggink, Assistant Director of Content Marketing & Communications
Scholars Transforming Through Research (STR) Program Recipients Chelsea Venters ‘25, Ryan Wise '24, and Maggie Gravano ’25 in lab. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.

October 23, 2023 — Faculty-mentored undergraduate research is one of the more distinctive ways Marist students get to learn and contribute to transformative change on an issue they’re passionate about. 

Within the School of Science, a team recently earned a unique opportunity to join a national-level training program where students and their faculty mentors learn how to connect with government officials, funding agencies, and the media.

The Scholars Transforming Through Research (STR) program is a prestigious six-month training organized by the Council for Undergraduate Research. Only a select group of colleges from across the country are accepted into the program, with Marist joining institutions such as Ohio State, UCLA, and Vanderbilt University. During the program students get both virtual and on-site training in Washington, D.C. Dr. Megan Dennis, Associate Professor of Biology, and students Ryan Wise ‘24, Maggie Gravano ‘25, and Chelsea Venters ‘25 will soon be joining other accomplished students and faculty on Capitol Hill.

“It feels like a real accomplishment to be accepted into STR,” said Ryan Wise '24, biomedical sciences major. “I feel like this opportunity will expose me to new aspects of my ever-changing and competitive field.” 

The research program is important to Dr. Dennis and her students’ current research, which focuses on studying cellular defects in Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS) — a rare, genetic disease characterized by oculocutaneous albinism and bleeding disorders. This research is essential because it helps find better treatments and potential cures for this disease and others like it. The training will be helpful since it can be challenging to get funding and support for rare diseases.

Left to right: Ryan Wise '24, Maggie Gravano '25, and Chelsea Venters '25. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.

“Getting the opportunity to promote research about HPS, is crucial for finding ways to cure and treat it,” said Chelsea Venters '25, biochemistry major. “Coming out of STR, we all hope to better communicate and explain our research to the public, which will hopefully encourage visible change and an increase in undergraduate research.”

During the training, students develop their communication and advocacy skills, empowering them to effectively convey the importance of high-impact practices of undergraduate research and scholarship in a way that gets policymakers invested.

Maggie Gravano '25, biology major, said acceptance into the program is very rewarding for many reasons, including how it “allows us to advocate for the students who were just like us waiting for the chance to impact the science community through research."

While in D.C., students and faculty network, speak to members of Congress, and go through an in-depth science advocacy boot camp that carries over into virtual sessions throughout the year.

Image of Dr. Megan Dennis
Dr. Megan Dennis looking through microscope in class with students. Photo by Carlo de Jesus/Marist College. 

“My students have postgraduate plans to go on to graduate and medical school, so the tools that they'll learn will be important for them to advocate for their own research or patients in the future,” Dr. Dennis said. “For me, the most important message to share is that undergraduate research can be a transformative experience for students, and we should work to expand support and resources so that all students can benefit from these high-impact opportunities.”

This is the second year in a row that a team from Marist was accepted into STR. Last year, Dr. Zion Klos, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, and his students Carli Piretra ’23 and Emma Butzler ’22, gained valuable insights at STR. The training the team received helped Carli and Emma in their experiences postgrad, as Carli is specializing in environmental consulting and Emma is pursuing a Ph.D. in Geospatial Analytics.

Dr. Klos said Scholars Transforming Through Research taught his students how to make their research more relevant to lawmakers and the research community, and helped them translate their research into impactful changes for the world at large.

“STR truly prepares students for their future work as scientists and shows them that their research can actually help address environmental issues and other real-world problems,” Dr. Klos said. “My team from last year became very attuned to how their research could be integrated with policy connections and key stakeholders, which leads to changes that impact us all.”


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