Stags in the Lab

Stags in the Lab

Pictured above, from left: Margot Puerta ’00, LaQueta Hudson ’07, and Meghan Dancho ’06 at New York’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.

by Nina Riccio, M.A. ’09

Margot Puerta ’00 rememb ers her first biology test at Fairfield — the one on which she didn’t do as well as she thought she should. Frustrated, she went to see her professor, Dr. Donald Ross, who suggested they “autopsy” each question.

“We spent two hours going over that test,” she recalled. “He had so many students, yet I couldn’t believe how much time he spent with me.”

Those hours with the late Dr. Ross served her well: Puerta went on to get her master’s in biology and an MBA in finance, and is now the managing editor of Molecular Medicine, a biomedical journal published by New York’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.

“A few years ago, the CEO came into my office and asked for my help in hiring someone for the lab, so I contacted Dr. Glenn Sauer (currently the holder of the Ross Chair, in honor of Dr. Ross) at Fairfield and asked him to recommend a few people.” Of those who applied for the position, the clear standout was LaQueta Hudson ’07, a biology major and California native. Today, she’s working in the Feinstein lab on in vitro experiments to do with inflammation and metabolic disorders and doing grad work at nearby affiliate Hofstra University.

Feinstein President Kevin J. Tracey, M.D., said he was looking for someone just like Margot, who had been extremely successful in the lab.

“She attributed much of this success to the experience she had at Fairfield,” he noted. “I was pleased when she recommended one of her colleagues at Fairfield, and hoped she would embody similar values and skills.”

A year or so later, a second position opened up in the lab, and Hudson was asked to help fill the spot. She picked up the phone and called her mentor at Fairfield, Dr. Olivia Harriott, for a recommendation, and shortly thereafter Meghan Dancho ’06 ended up joining the team.

Two things come through loud and clear during a conversation with the three women scientists: all developed strong mentor relationships with their professors at Fairfield, and all point to the rigorous preparation that was expected of them as undergraduates.

Dr. Sauer, for example: “Had a very detailed, very serious approach to biochem,” remembered Hudson. “He would start off with a big picture and gradually bring it down to the smallest detail. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I see the merits of that approach now that I’m in the lab.” It’s a skill that Puerta, in her role as editor, also uses with the authors she deals with from all over the world. “I stress that it is essential for clarity to start off broadly before getting down to details.”

“All the professors were sticklers for organization, and they impressed upon us as science majors how important that was,” said Dancho.

Careful attention to detail, long hours in the lab, and professors who encouraged them to reach ever higher may have been great preparation for their jobs, but there was one thing Fairfield didn’t prepare them for.

“Right after I handed in my master’s thesis, I was at my father’s restaurant, and a customer asked, ‘So what can a blonde like you do with a science degree?’” said Puerta, who still seems stunned by the comment.

Adds Dancho, “I once told someone I was doing scientific research, and he assumed it was in cosmetology!”

Fortunately, those attitudes are far from the norm, and these alumnae are willing to help shepherd future colleagues through the process of job exploration and discernment.

The Winter Break Job Shadow program — a joint effort among Career Services, Alumni Relations, and the Alumni Association — encourages Fairfield juniors to identify career paths that interest them, while alumni working in those fields are contacted and asked to have the students shadow them for a day. During the month January, Feinstein hosted six science majors from Fairfield who spent the day working in various parts of the facility and talking to researchers, administrators, and others in their field of interest.

“I’ve been impressed with Fairfield graduates because they are thoughtful, detail-oriented, collaborative, enthusiastic, and have the skills necessary to advance science,” said Dr. Tracey.


THE BIOLOGY SEMINAR SERIES

The Donald J. Ross Sr. Chair in Biology and Biochemistry was established this past fall in honor of longtime faculty member Dr. Donald Ross. Associate Professor and past chair of the Biology Department, Dr. Glenn Sauer, is the first holder of the chair. In addition, a Biology Seminar Series in memory of Dr. Ross is held on the last Wednesday of each month through April from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the DiMenna-Nyselius Library Multimedia Room. All are welcome to attend.

Feb. 29, 2012
Stress in Wild Animals: From the Arctic to the Equator
L. Michael Romero, Ph.D., professor for the School of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Biology at Tufts University

March 28, 2012
Interactions among Ecosystem Services in Agricultural Landscapes
Elena Bennett, Ph.D., assistant professor of ecosystem ecology in the McGill School of Environment and Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University

April 25, 2012
Stem Cell Niche Dynamics and Signaling in Tissue Regeneration
Valentina Greco, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics at Yale University