Illustration by Shenuka Corea

Capstone Series: Biology

As Commencement day approaches, a few seniors majoring in biology have some final, parting words to share regarding their biggest projects thus far, the capstone.

Apr 28, 2018

For Biology students, although the process of creating a capstone spans one year, the project is really the culmination of four years of innumerable lab reports, experiments and a great deal of commitment. The requirements for the completion of a biology capstone involve a capstone paper, a ten-minute presentation, a defense and a poster session.
Mona Nehme, Class of 2018, elaborated on the criteria she and her colleagues had to meet in the creation of a capstone.
“The capstone paper itself is basically structured as a very intense lab report. The presentation should be appropriate for a lay audience, so it should not be very technical. Then you have a 45- to 50-minute defense, in which you have three committee members who are going to grill you and ask you very specific questions until you do not know how to answer anymore,” she said. “They are trying to gauge how much you are actually acquainted with your topic. The poster session, which is about four to six hours long, involves the presentation of an A1-sized scientific poster summarizing your capstone.”
The different stages of a final capstone project, which follow only after the formulation of a hypothesis, data collection and testing, demand both time and energy. Nisa Semesta, Class of 2018, commented on the time constraints involved in the project.
“Like many projects in the natural sciences, often a year is not enough to completely conclude the project. Since I studied away at NYU New York after submitting my capstone proposal, I effectively only had between eight months [and] one year to optimize my techniques, do the experiments, and write my capstone. Overall, I am happy with how I did — despite the time constraint,” she said.
The research areas and questions being addressed by the current seniors span a wide range of topics. Semesta’s capstone concerned the role of nuclear myosin — a protein that has been implicated in regulating gene activity and maintaining genome organization and stability — while Merima Sabanovic, Class of 2018, worked with a mouse animal model to investigate the relationship between chronic social stress and social dominance.
Nehme examined mitochondria to study adaptations to high altitudes in a species of Ethiopian frogs. She provided a disclaimer regarding the selection process of a capstone topic in collaboration with one’s mentor: “You don’t just go in and say, I want to study this.”
The research one engages in tends to be in line with the ongoing research of one’s mentor, although she notes that they carefully gauge students’ interests too.
“It takes a lot of money to do these things, and it also takes a lot of knowledge to come up with these ideas,” she explained.
Karolis Degutis, Class of 2018, investigated the maintenance of visual working memory in the primary visual cortex. His capstone merges biology and psychology, and the reasoning behind his choice in capstone and mentor was that he has always been interested in human behavior, but thought a purely biological approach to explaining it was too reductionist.
“It completely dismisses what’s going on in one’s mind, the actual thinking that leads to an action,” he said. “Thus, I chose to work with a professor who does cognitive neuroscience and integrates both biology and psychology to provide a more holistic approach to understanding humans.” The ability to engage in his mentor’s fields of study and research greatly benefited his capstone.
Though a rewarding and fruitful process, the arduous nature of producing a large-scale research project is very real.
“I started my project pretty much from scratch, which meant that I had to design the equipment, establish the methodology and optimize the protocols before even beginning with the actual experiments. It was daunting to take on those responsibilities at this level, but it was exciting to have so much control over my work,” said Sabanovic.
Degutis mentioned the challenges he faced with equipment.
“I also ended up using the new MRI scanner that the university recently acquired. This was quite challenging, because before scanning actual participants, we had to troubleshoot the machine for around half a year,” he said.
The support and collective encouragement of the 20 other students engaging in the capstone project was incredibly helpful during the last stages of the capstone process.
“Seeing my friends present and be proud of their work was more gratifying. You follow their work and you know all the drama behind the scenes, so it is truly inspiring to see them succeed,” Sabanovic said.
The opportunity to present and receive constructive feedback was not limited to the NYUAD community. Semesta, who has not been able to watch other presentations and has not defended her capstone yet, had an opportunity to present her capstone at Cold Spring Harbor Asia's Chromatin, Epigenetics & Transcription conference in Suzhou, China. She gained much from the opportunity, including thinking of questions that prepared her for her defense and receiving encouragement from the larger scientific community.
The opportunity to do a capstone is one that is unique and extremely useful, not only for research purposes but also for a student’s future prospects too. Possessing this degree of experience at an entry-level job, and being able to publish a paper with concrete new research, is remarkable.
“My capstone served as a very good introduction to the type of research I want to do in the future. I had to present my thesis in interviews and I think it really showcased my research skills better than any personal statement could,” Sabanovic said.
Semesta had a similar experience. “When I applied to direct entry PhD programs, my capstone project elevated my profile and many professors were eager to learn about it.”
Having entered this rigorous and rewarding experience, full of highs and lows, and emerged successful, the current seniors have many sentiments to share with their counterparts in other years.
“Something I wish somebody had told me is that a capstone is just another big assignment, it is nothing special, it is exactly what we have been doing for four years,” Nehme said, adding, “Most importantly, your capstone is only as big and complicated as you want it to be.”
Shalini Corea is Deputy News Editor. Email her at
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