Biochemistry graduate wins Laura Scott Etter Prize for research

Sarah McNeer headshot

As a freshman, Sarah McNeer ’21 (Liberty Township, Ohio) was excited to get into a Biochemistry lab and start conducting her own research.

Little did she know that her dedication to research would lead to her becoming the fourth recipient of the Laura Scott Etter Prize.

“I am honored to receive this award in recognition of the years of work I have devoted to my undergraduate research,” McNeer said. “I would like to thank the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as well as the Honors and Investigative Studies Committee, for making this project possible. I would especially like to thank Dr. (Suzanne) Parsons, my academic advisor, research mentor, and role model, for her support of my personal and professional goals.” 

The prize is awarded to a graduating senior who completes the most outstanding capstone research project in physical science and has the goal of continuing in graduate study. The selection is made by faculty from the departments of Chemistry, Environmental Engineering, Geology and Physics.

“Initially, I began by observing upperclassmen (in the lab), but quickly started on my own project during my sophomore year,” she said. “After almost four years of work, my undergraduate research culminated in the publication of my Honors Thesis, titled The Investigation of Dinitroparaben Induced Apoptosis in M624 Human Melanoma Cells.’ This investigation focused on testing a novel compound, dinitroparaben, as a potential treatment against skin cancer cells.”

McNeer will start her Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences at Case Western Reserve University this summer and continue to pursue a career in scientific research.

“In addition to developing my own research skills, one of the most rewarding parts of this journey was the opportunity to mentor younger students in the lab,” she said. “I was proud to help these students develop into their own independent researchers.”

McNeer began working in Dr. Parsons’ undergraduate Biochemistry research laboratory during her freshman year, and she made a strong impression.

Sarah is very serious about her academics, passionate about her research — both findings and perfecting techniques — enthusiastic about mentoring others and community outreach, and excited to experience everything that graduate school has to offer,” said Parsons, who is the McCoy Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Director of the Investigative Studies Program. “My researchers work in collaboration with an organic synthesis lab group, and I was very excited when Sarah was assigned to my lab. She began by mentoring upperclassmen a couple of days per week. She did not receive credit or pay for this work, but I could tell that she took pleasure in the learning experience.”

During her sophomore year, McNeer learned the methods of cell culture and western blot — and this allowed her to begin her own project and she applied for a competitive summer research fellowship through the College’s Investigative Studies program.

“Sarah worked hard to prepare a competitive proposal containing a research plan, timeline and literature review in order to apply to this program,” Parsons said. “During the paid experience, Sarah’s project goal was to analyze the effects of a newly synthesized paraben compound on melanoma cells. She used her knowledge from organic chemistry to determine a suitable solvent for cell culture treatment, determined the concentrations of dinitroparaben and treatment times in order to deduce an IC50 value for the melanoma cells, and began protein analysis in order to characterize the cell death signaling pathway.”

McNeer put in more than 250 hours in the lab during the six-week fellowship and presented her work at a Fall Symposium and had submitted abstracts to present at the College’s annual All Scholars Day and the National American Chemistry Society Conference in Philadelphia.

“I was sad when the ACS conference was canceled because Sarah was going to be my first ever junior to present at the national conference,” Parsons said. “I am so proud of her that she was able to accomplish enough by her junior year to present nationally.”