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Explorers and Scholars Program to Expand with Major Gift

For St. Joe’s pharmaceutical sciences majors, early-career experience in the lab sparks success. A new gift will help more students turn theory into practice.

Student and faculty member wearing lab coats and safety goggles standing next to a computer Working alongside Professor Zhiyu Li, PhD, pharmacology and toxicology major Hailey Swaldi ’23 created an alternative to antibody therapeutics in Saint Joseph’s Explorers and Scholars in Science Program.

Written by: Ben Seal

Published: December 2, 2022

Total reading time: 4 minutes

Student and faculty member wearing a lab coat and safety goggles pose for a photo in the lab
Stephanie Levy ’23 and her faculty mentor Anil D’Mello, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences

Stephanie Levy ’23 had learned about pH and high-performance liquid chromatography in her pharmaceutical sciences courses, but it wasn’t until she entered Professor Anil D’Mello, PhD’s lab as part of St. Joe’s Explorers and Scholars program that she got hands-on experience turning theory into practice. In her research on encapsulating enzymes, she’s used chromatography equipment to measure enzyme activity, and evaluated the efficiency of encapsulating proteins in microcapsules — giving shape to a wide variety of classroom concepts.

With the help of a $150,000 gift from Song Li, PhD, the founder and CEO of Exton-based Frontage Laboratories, more students like Levy will get valuable training in the lab early in their time at St. Joe’s — training that can be critical to building a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

The Explorers and Scholars program places highly qualified students in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences into the lab in the summer after their first year for eight paid weeks of full-time research with a faculty mentor. The research experience gives them the chance to learn about communication, collaboration and problem-solving in a real-world setting. The program, which is set to graduate its first cohort in the spring, has been steadily growing and will now be able to fund more students’ first forays into hands-on research.

Li says the program can give students “some idea of what the lab looks like, and also how they can apply their knowledge learned in the classroom to their daily work,” helping to guide career decisions. He wants more St. Joe’s students to develop the skills that will help them excel in the pharmaceutical industry.

For Levy, a pharmaceutical sciences major, the program revealed a passion for research that has already led her toward a second summer in the lab and a plan to continue her research in graduate school.

Zhiyu Li and Hailey Swaldi pose in the lab wearing lab coats and goggles
Pharmacology and toxicology major Hailey Swaldi ’23 and her faculty mentor, Zhiyu Li, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences

For Hailey Swaldi ’23, a pharmacology and toxicology major, the experience developed her molecular biology skills, led to a coveted internship at GSK and a desire to continue researching biochemistry in graduate school, and opened doors to future career opportunities. Swaldi spent a summer in Professor Zhiyu Li, PhD’s lab focused on creating an alternative to antibody therapeutics. While antibodies require the costly maintenance of mammalian cell lines and can be difficult to distribute throughout the body because of their large molecule size, the E. coli and yeast systems used in Li’s lab are easier to maintain and the protein molecules Swaldi helped create are smaller in size.

These are the intricate details of drug discovery and development that Explorers and Scholars students witness, taking them far beyond their education in the classroom.

“When I began my internship at GSK I realized how the Explorers and Scholars program differentiated me from other interns,” Swaldi says. “Most undergraduates conduct research under a graduate student and have less of a say in the experimental flow.”

Explorers and Scholars forced me to become a more independent researcher. I was able to troubleshoot problems on my own within the lab, something that is rare for an undergraduate student.

Hailey Swaldi ’23

Pharmacology and Toxicology Major

But Swaldi worked alongside the graduate student in Li’s lab, giving her an unusual and welcome opportunity to develop authority in understanding and discussing the science being used in the lab. That dynamic, she says, “forced me to become a more independent researcher. I was able to troubleshoot problems on my own within the lab, something that is rare for an undergraduate student.”

D’Mello says the Explorers and Scholars program benefits students in three ways: First, by teaching them to apply theoretical principles; second, by giving them hands-on training as a scientist, opening doors in the future; and third, by encouraging personal growth. They learn as a student, a scientist and an individual.

“Stephanie learned that mistakes are made and there are disappointing results in the lab,” D’Mello says. “You dust off your pants and start again.”

As Swaldi says, “you learn through your mistakes.” After getting so much hands-on experience, students like Swaldi and Levy can avoid many of those setbacks on the path to progress.

Student and faculty member working in the lab
Stephanie Levy ’23 turned theory into practice encapsulating enzymes alongside Professor Anil D’Mello, PhD.

Isabelle Mercier, PhD, chair of pharmaceutical sciences, is among the faculty mentors who guide Explorers and Scholars students in their research. Mentorship is at the heart of the program, she says. Students are not only paired with a faculty member leading their lab work, but also with graduate and undergraduate students in their labs who can offer another level of mentorship. And as they progress in their careers, they can, in turn, become mentors themselves, as Levy did in her second summer in the lab.

More than anything, though, Mercier is excited that Song Li’s gift will allow the program to bring new students into the lab as early as possible in their college careers to begin developing their skills. The ultimate goal, she says, is “to ignite their passion for research in the lab.”

If Swaldi and Levy are any indication, Mercier and her colleagues are well on the way.