Close

Maria Pecoraro ’19 is Using Her Love of Science—and Learning—to Help Others

As Edgren Scholar Maria Pecoraro ’19 researched lung development over the summer, she witnessed the potential benefits of scientific research while working as a nursing assistant.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

January 03, 2019 | Noon

Maria Pecoraro ’19 spent her summer working with Professor of Biology Brian Hyatt on experiments on lung development in African clawed toed frogs as part of a prestigious Edgren Scholarship.

Maria Pecoraro ’19 spent her summer working with Professor of Biology Brian Hyatt on experiments on lung development in African clawed toed frogs as part of a prestigious Edgren Scholarshi

About a month into her summer research project on lung development, Maria Pecoraro ’19 washed Xenopus frog embryos in a Bethel University laboratory with solutions. Between rinses, she read a developmental biology journal article emphasizing the importance of studying lung development to help prevent genetic lung defects. That night, Pecoraro worked as a nursing assistant at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. She helped treat a child suffering from cystic fibrosis, which is a congenital lung defect.  

“Helping comfort the patient and their family through their suffering helped me to see and experience how my time spent in the lab is so much bigger than myself, and could help alleviate the suffering of children and give them a chance of living a normal life,” she says. 

Pecoraro spent her summer working with Professor of Biology Brian Hyatt on experiments on lung development in African clawed toed frogs as part of a prestigious Edgren Scholarship, which comes with a $3,000 student stipend. The research explores whether ETV1 acts in the fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signaling pathway.

"I’m going to graduate from Bethel having done things that I would have never thought I could do, and research was a big one.”

— Maria Pecoraro ’19, biology major and chemistry minor

Pecoraro appreciated keeping the potential real-world impacts of the research at the forefront through her job. “It’s so much bigger than just science and my experience and my education,” she says. “It’s more about how are we contributing to our world around us—to people who need help.”

But as Pecoraro examines the test results this fall, she admits she doubted if she could be successful in senior research projects when she started at Bethel. “I’m not an academic person,” she insists with a laugh. “At all.”

Pecoraro is now a biology major and chemistry minor, studying for the MCAT Exam, and applying to medical schools. She credits her success to her love of learning and to her professors, whom she praises for being helpful, engaging, and affirming. “I’m going to graduate from Bethel having done things that I would have never thought I could do, and research was a big one,” she says.

Pecoraro grew up the daughter of two biology majors in Prior Lake, Minnesota, which exposed her to the sciences at a young age. They also passed on a love of learning, encouraging Pecoraro to actively seek out the answers and learn about her interests. They set an example, too, as Pecoraro remembers her father racing sled dogs and raising chickens when she was younger to learn about each. Her parents homeschooled Pecoraro through her junior year of high school, so the family often devoted study time to explore areas of interest. “I just loved learning, and if I was interested in something, my parents were very supportive,” she says.

In her junior and senior years of high school, Pecoraro attended a PSEO program at a community college and earned a two-year nursing assistant certificate. She then took a year off to work as a nursing assistant, an experience that helped her see the doctors’ role as more problem-solving, which appealed to her nature and love of learning.

“I love discovering more about life and how we’re created, and I want to use that information in order to help people.”

— Maria Pecoraro ’19, biology major and chemistry minor

She transferred to Bethel after falling in love with the campus with plans to complete a four-year nursing degree. But in her first semester, she enjoyed her physiology and microbiology courses and decided to continue to study the sciences and changed her major to a pre-med track. “But it really has all stemmed from the fact that I just love learning,” Pecoraro says. “I love discovering more about life and how we’re created, and I want to use that information in order to help people.”

Bethel provided her an opportunity to study the world and the sciences without pressure. Professors don’t promote their views or agenda, she says; instead, they lead conversations where they discuss all viewpoints about a topic. “I don’t think I would have made the switch had I been at a different university,” she says. “Which would have been sad for me, because I would have missed out.”

Still, she never expected to thrive in research until she took Introduction to Research, where she wrote a proposal on genetics and developmental biology. The project took inspiration from her work as a nursing assistant in a bone marrow transplant unit for children who don’t have functioning immune systems. “Here’s a real-world problem, here’s an area of biology that I like—let’s kind of marry those two things and see what has been found about that certain disease and let’s see what we still need to find out, and I wrote my proposal based on that,” she says. 

Pecoraro jokes she learned later her project wasn’t exactly what her professor expected; however, it served as an audition of sorts for future opportunities. “I was thinking out of the box, essentially,” she says. “I wasn’t just doing something based on what a professor had done and copying that, but I was actually in the real world, looking at ‘What are the real-world problems?’”

At Bethel, Maria Pecoraro ’19 has continued to develop her love of learning and has discovered how much she enjoys research as well.

At Bethel, Maria Pecoraro ’19 has continued to develop her love of learning and has discovered how much she enjoys research as well.

When she approached Hyatt about working on a research project, she submitted her proposal as an application. She joined his lung development research and received the Edgren Scholarship. “I feel truly, truly honored,” she says.

Hyatt describes Pecoraro as a high-energy student who benefits from her questioning nature. “Maria is extremely inquisitive,” he says. “She loves to learn, she likes asking questions, she’s hardworking—and all those things make for a good researcher.”

Their research centers on genes activated in an embryo that are important in the formation of internal organs. In the tests, they decreased and increased the amount of FGF signaling—a genetic signaling pathway that is necessary for proper lung development.

They found increasing FGF signaling increased ETV1 expression, and decreasing FGF signaling decreased ETV1 expression, Hyatt says. But they haven't been able to pinpoint if increasing ETV1 affects lung development.

Pecoraro and Hyatt presented their research at the Developmental Biology Symposium at the University of Minnesota, and to the Bethel community this fall. Hyatt hopes to publish their findings in an academic journal.

Through the experience, Pecoraro gained confidence in her abilities as a researcher, and she’s excited to go back and look at the results knowing of the potential benefits. “This information ultimately could help people in the long run,” she says. “And so that’s just really, really exciting for me.”

Though she grew up a Christian, Pecoraro says her experiences at Bethel helped deepen her faith through learning about God’s creation and being able to praise him for that. “I just feel like I’ve connected with the Lord in a whole new way,” she says. 

“Studying the sciences at Bethel has absolutely added to my faith,” she adds. Hyatt says mentoring students in research naturally leads to discussions about faith. He says research provides opportunities to discover things that no one else knew, but that “God had placed there for our pleasure in discovering,” he says. “It gives an insight into who God is by looking at how his creation works.”

As Pecoraro prepares for her future after Bethel, her faith continues to inspire a desire to keep learning and seeking answers to unanswered questions because she wants to benefit others—not for personal gain. “I want to do this because I want to help people,” she says.

Study Pre-med at Bethel.

Bethel offers many opportunities to prepare for careers in health professions, including pre-med options. Various undergraduate and graduate majors provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to pursue careers in medicine, nursing, dentistry, physician assistant, physical therapy, pharmacy, and other healthcare fields.

Learn more

Publications

Bethel Magazine

Read the current issue.