By Dan DiPrinzio
When first-year students in Cabrini’s honors biology class have questions about mycobacteriophages (viruses that can affect tuberculosis-causing bacteria), they often turn to Catherine Mageeney.
Mageeney is not a faculty member at Cabrini; the senior biology/pre‑med major is a peer mentor, serving as classroom coach and tutor to students navigating the detailed layers of biology.
National publications are taking note of her talent and leadership skills: Mageeney’s peer mentoring has been highlighted in articles in the January 2011 issue of the scholarly journal BioScience, and in the winter 2010 issue of the Council on Undergraduate Research’s CUR Quarterly. Mageeney presented her research on peer mentoring at several conferences, including at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.
“Katie has gained an immense amount of confidence since she began peer mentoring our phage genomics students,” said Dr. David Dunbar, associate professor of biology. “In fact, other faculty members and I view her as a valued course instructor. If a beginning biology student is having trouble grasping a complex concept, Katie can simplify it in such a way that makes it easy for the student to understand.”
Growing up, Mageeney thought she’d become an elementary school teacher. She “fell in love with science” while taking a science course at Norristown High School in Norristown, Pa. Then, it was just a matter of finding the right college to develop and foster her scientific aptitude, ambition and curiosity.
A native of the College’s partner city of Norristown, Mageeney was drawn to Cabrini’s science resources and laboratories, strong Catholic tradition and close-knit community.
“Cabrini’s Catholic aspect definitely stood out among the other colleges I looked at,” said Mageeney. “The Iadarola Center had the nicest labs, and the faculty members I met with were great.”
Since her sophomore year, Mageeney has been conducting undergraduate research with Dr. Dunbar and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Melinda Harrison. The team of student and professors have focused on phages—viruses that affect bacteria—and genomes, which encode the genes and non-coding sequences of DNA. Most recently, Mageeney has researched mycobacteriophages that can affect tuberculosis-causing bacteria.
Mageeney’s time at Cabrini coincided with the College’s acceptance into one of the largest research organizations in the country, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). In 2009, Cabrini joined HHMI’s Science Education Alliance and the institute’s National Genomics Research Initiative, which has provided Mageeney and other Cabrini students ample opportunities for research.
At Cabrini, Mageeney was a member of the women’s swim team and serves as a resident assistant. But of all that Mageeney has accomplished, peer mentoring may be what has made the biggest difference—for her, and for the students she assists.
“It is very fulfilling to see students I mentor grasp concepts that they may have had a bit of trouble with,” said Mageeney, who is considering graduate programs in cell and molecular biology at Lehigh and Drexel universities, and at the University of Pittsburgh. “It also has been very transformative for me, helping to shape what I want to do after graduation.”