Biology Department Takes Motivated Local Student under Its Wings

Caroline Vail, a senior at Bethlehem's Liberty High School, is a most unusual student. Three years ago, when she was just a sophomore, she contacted the Moravian Department of Biological Sciences to request help with a research project. Her goal? Finding a cure for cancer.

Moravian biology professors helped high school student Caroline Vail study mutations in the red pigment of the bacterium Serratia marcescens (shown under the microscope).

Karen Kurvink de las Casas, associate professor of biology, answered the call. "Dr. Kurvink said she'd be willing to help," said Vail. "I figured cancer research might not be the best place to start, so after talking with Dr. Kurvink, I decided to focus on the mutation of a red bacterium, Serratia marcescens." The bacterium's red pigment has beneficial (antiviral, antifungal, anti-carcinogenic) properties, but when the bacterium mutates into an unpigmented strain—usually due to improper sterilization of medical tools—it can cause conjunctivitis, pneumonia, and other diseases, she explained.

Working with biology Professors Kurvink, Frank Kuserk, and Diane Husic in Collier Hall of Science, Vail began experimenting with the effects of UV light on the bacterium, and later learned to isolate its distinctive red pigment. "Dr. Kurvink reviewed my results and helped me determine the best methodology for isolating the pigments," said Vail, who has continued to work with the Moravian professors over the last three years.

Last year, Vail's work won first prize at the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science state competition, earning her a scholarship. She will participate in the 2009 competition next week. Vail plans to major in biology on her way to med school, and hopes to continue her research—perhaps studying the bacterium's pigmentation cycle. She's received offers from five colleges, and although she did not apply to Moravian ("four blocks is just too close to home"), she is very grateful to the Moravian faculty members who nurtured her interest in science.

"I am amazed that I was even able to do this kind of research before I went to college," she said. "All I had to do was ask—everyone here was so willing to help. I'm looking for the same qualities in professors at the school I will attend."