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Major scientific research takes a dose of patience, calculated tests, and applied trial and error. Knowing ahead of time that there will be setbacks is important, because without first finding failure, it’s nearly impossible to find success.

Tomorrow’s scientists are trying to change the world. And for a shrinking number of people who actually want to make a difference, it takes a lot of moving parts. The greatest of breakthroughs take the collaborative work of an exhaustive team. Meet the panel that made a new wave of research possible here at Gwynedd-Mercy College. The Architect Always finding ways to improve the work of today’s ambitious students, Dr. Stacey Lettini came to Gwynedd-Mercy College in 2009. With a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences and a doctorate in ecology and evolution, she had a vast background of experiences. She created the Undergraduate Research Program to challenge students to take on a long-term discovery project. The Locksmiths Ideas can be brilliant, but without the proper support they can drift into oblivion, destined to be found by someone else. The relentless work of former Gwynedd-Mercy College Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations Sean Lavelle helped to unlock the first door—to the McLean Contributionship. McLean then held the key to the next door, graciously bestowing Dr. Lettini’s pet project with a $30,000 kickstart. The money provided much-needed equipment for research. McLean’s mission is to stimulate a better understanding of the natural environment around the Greater Philadelphia area.

The Pioneers With the blueprint and financial means in place, it was time for students to play their role. In the summer of 2010, Caitlin Doherty ’12 put an idea into practice. Throughout the past year, she has used the Treweryn stream ecosystem (a small tributary near the College) to sample various invertebrates (dragonflies, fly larvae, beetles, various fish). This spring, Elijah Beckham III ’11 joined the experiment.

Together, along with Dr. Lettini, they identified and categorized over 4,000 insects—a dizzying feat in itself. Then, linked the cause and effect that weather conditions, disease and natural selection imposed. Caitlin charted and organized some of the findings for her senior thesis. Ultimately, the three were trying to learn about parasite biodiversity. Basically, it’s the measure of the health of ecosystems. Biodiversity is a very hot topic, yet no one knows exactly what controls it. Preliminary data suggest that it is the invertebrate hosts, not the fish hosts that play a major role. This is because parasites can often only cycle through or live in one invertebrate species, but can live in many fish species. Caitlin presented her work at both the Gwynedd-Mercy College Honors Program Undergraduate Research Conference and at the SEPCHE (Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education) Honors Conference held at Cabrini College. It will take a few more years before the study reaches completion. Dr. Lettini will continue to showcase future student projects, made possible by the Undergraduate Research Program—and its handful of noteworthy contributors.

Caitlin Doherty ’11 inspects microorganism samples from a local stream. She and fellow classmates have worked tirelessly to study the ecosystem, and learn about its inhabitants.

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