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Academics

Saint Joseph’s Alumnae Receive Prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Recent graduates Jordan McCarthy, BS ’24, and Alexa Mihaita, BS ’24, are conducting vital research in the areas of sleep deprivation and memory, and disease-causing bacteria.

Saint Joseph's University students in chemistry lab

Written by: Layal Srour, MS ’25

Published: June 26, 2024

Total reading time: 3 minutes

Saint Joseph’s University alumnae, alongside esteemed faculty, are putting their recent degrees into practice through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The program will provide both alumnae with a three-year annual stipend and cost-of-education allowance for the duration of their graduate studies.

Jordan McCarthy, BS ’24, chemical biology alumna and German minor, is focusing her research on understanding how sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairments. Specifically, McCarthy is investigating how sleep loss affects the signaling pathway that is believed to be important in memory formation in the brains of female mice. 

“My results show that acute and chronic sleep loss have different effects on mTOR activity in the brain, and how that activity in female mice is affected differently by sleep loss than in male mice,” she says. “These effects can be different depending on the length of sleep deprivation, biological sex and even which brain region you're studying.”

McCarthy notes that further research is needed to study how sleep deprivation affects memory-related processes in mice to ultimately give a better understanding of what might be occurring in humans and how it can be addressed.

Jennifer Tudor, PhD, associate professor of biology, played an integral part in McCarthy's research as her mentor. She provided her with the space to develop her own research questions and independently lead projects, allowing McCarthy to build a valuable set of skills in learning more about the field, thinking critically about her lab work and becoming a better scientist. 

“For the last four years, Dr. Tudor has supported me, my research and my career goals in every way,” McCarthy says. “She has always been there to give me advice and feedback to help me reach my goals, and her incredible mentorship has made all of my research success possible.”

McCarthy will be obtaining her PhD in neuroscience at University of Michigan in hopes of working as a postdoctoral researcher, becoming a professor and eventually running her own research lab.

Alexa Mihaita, BS ’24, chemical biology alumna and Spanish minor, is investigating how gene regulation allows bacteria, such as Enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) and E. albertii, to cause disease. 

With her research at Saint Joseph’s, Mihaita looked into how an RNA Chaperone Protein called ProQ regulates the ability of EPEC to cause disease, as EPEC is a major cause of morbidity and mortality amongst infants in developing countries. This protein regulates the expression of many genes required for EPEC to colonize and infect the small intestine. She found that ProQ affects several processes involved in causing disease, such as motility and the formation of highly antibiotic-resistant groups of bacteria called biofilms.

Shantanu Bhatt, PhD, a professor in the Department of Biology, mentored Mihaita both inside and outside the lab, providing assistance as she pursues her graduate studies and furthers her research in this program. 

As a member of his lab since the summer of 2021, Mihaita says that “Dr. Bhatt gave me ample opportunities to conduct experiments independently, build my laboratory skills, and recognize my skill set and develop my confidence in my ability to pursue a research career. I deeply credit him for inspiring in me the confidence to pursue my graduate studies and apply for the GRFP.”.

Mihaita will be continuing her graduate studies at University of Pennsylvania’s PhD program in cell and molecular biology: microbiology, virology, parasitology. Following the completion of her doctoral studies, Mihaita plans to pursue a postdoctoral research position, eventually becoming a professor and running a microbiology research lab. 

“Alexa’s work has significantly accelerated the research on understanding the molecular mechanisms of severity in EPEC and other related bacteria,” Bhatt says. “This research was recently submitted for publication to a peer-reviewed journal and Alexa is the co-first author on this alongside two other students, Emily Costello and Mary Marino.”

To learn more about fellowship opportunities, visit Saint Joseph’s Fellowships Office.