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CSTEM Outstanding Grad Bridges Research, Student Experiences

By Bradi Zapata

Biological sciences senior Serena Farrell has used every moment of her time at Cal State San Marcos to drive the department toward success with her research, be a voice for students in the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (CSTEM), and create a safe pathway for all students, especially student-athletes and those pursuing STEM careers. 

Her active, impactful work has earned Farrell the 2023 CSTEM Dean's Outstanding Graduate Award. During her time on campus, Farrell has held many roles, including a founding member of Dennis Kolosov’s lab, an undergraduate mentor, a summer scholar, U-RISE scholar, a voice for change as an Associated Students Inc. (ASI) leader and a student-athlete, team manager and student-athlete advisory council representative for cross country and track and field. 

In each curricular and extracurricular task she juggled, she quickly became known among peers and mentors as a leader who goes above and beyond, is not afraid to rally for change, and enthusiastically gives others a sense of belonging.

“Since joining my lab, Serena has demonstrated countless times that her enthusiasm does not stop at bench research,” Kolosov said. “In the past two years, Serena has served the CSUSM community in several leadership service roles, standing out for her ability to work collaboratively (and an) infectious way of sharing her knowledge and passions.” 

A love for animals, problem-solving and “Grey’s Anatomy” led Farrell to pursue an undergraduate degree in biological sciences, and it was through conducting research in the Kolosov lab that she found an unparalleled level of support. 

“The kind of methodology that Serena has established and mastered in the Kolosov lab requires manual dexterity, sterile technique, and microscope skills rivaling that of a neurosurgeon,” Kolosov said. 

In his lab, she primarily tackles issues related to mosquito larvae. Mosquitos are moving close to coasts and becoming native to a number of areas they were invasive to only a couple of years ago.  This is an issue because they can carry a substantial number of infectious diseases, such as the West Nile Virus, malaria, yellow fever, the Zika virus, etc. Currently there isn’t much exposure to these diseases in California. However, the more mosquitos that come to an area and acclimate, the higher the chance of exposure. Thus, it becomes crucial to control the population.  

Farrell is working toward this goal by researching how mosquitos acclimate so well – a theory she believes would lie in how excretion works in mosquito larvae.  

“Voltage-gated ion channels are integral membrane proteins famous for their function in excitable tissues of animals (e.g. muscles and nerves). They’re what enables individuals to catch a baseball which is about to hit their face, just in time to stop it,” Kolosov said. 

Kolosov’s research has recently shown that many of these channels are found in non-excitable non-contractile epithelia of animals, including the epithelial tissues of mosquito larvae called Malpighian tubules (mosquito version of the kidney) and anal papillae (mosquito version of the gill). These channels help mosquitos maintain salt and water balance in the face of changing environmental salinity using their kidneys and gills, but this process could be impacted by an environment’s salinity.  

Through her tireless work in the lab, Farrell has seen that mosquitos can maintain their salt and water balance in different salinity levels with the help of voltage-gated ion channels found in their epithelia.  

“If we can find channels that would help in this ion transport, we can try to either block or activate these channels,” Farrell said. “This would help us see if it could shut down the ability for the mosquitos to acclimate … and prevent them from spreading to more saline habitats in the future.” 

Farrell’s research with molecular biology was an opportunity she did not expect to have in an animal physiology lab. This rare opportunity has been paired with two others: the chance to complete this research herself from start to finish and be the first author on the research manuscript, which she hopes to have published before graduating. Both accomplishments are especially uncommon for STEM undergraduates. 

Once published, any scientist will have the chance to reference Farrell and Kolosov’s research, then use the findings as preliminary data for their own research. And because there isn’t much known about how voltage-gated ion channels function in epithelia, the manuscript has the potential to impact a lot of research in the future.   

Outside of the lab, Farrell also pours herself into service for ASI. As the college-wide CSTEM representative leader, she is often the sole representation for students on committees comprised primarily of faculty and staff. Farrell uses her position on these committees to advocate for diversity within the university and CSTEM. She’s worked with CSTEM Dean Jackie Trischman to provide safe spaces for students through events like Embrace Equity in STEM, which allowed students to learn from current industry leaders about the challenges they may have faced as a female in the field.

“At times, it's hard to find a support system within our college and to want to continue with the degree because (historically, there’s been a lack of) representation of women in the field,” Farrell said. “Through talking to Trischman, the provost and the ASI Board of Directors, I’ve realized that diversity is a really important because people need to be able to see themselves in their dream position. 

“The people who are going to make change ultimately is going to be the people who haven't felt change.”  

Farrell plans to continue sparking change in her next chapter of life: a Ph.D. program at Texas A&M University, where she plans to study ecology and conduct research on grasshoppers. She credits the acceptance into the program to the support of the Center for Training, Research and Educational Excellence (CTREE), where many late nights, computer charges and coffee breaks in the pursuit of admittance led to the opportunity to transform her passion into a career. 

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