Senior Snapshot, the Seniors in the Klepac-Ceraj Lab: “Our lab community is strong because of them”

Anika Luo ’23, Annelle Abatoni Kayisire ’23, Caroline MacVicar ’23, Deniz Uzun ’23, Cassie Potter ’23 in their lab space.
Image credit: Quinn Etoll ’23
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

“Our lab community is strong because of them. They’re so unique, and they each bring so much to the table,” says Vanja Klepac-Ceraj, associate professor of biological sciences, of the five seniors who currently work in her lab. She describes Annelle Abatoni Kayisire ’23, Anika Luo ’23, Caroline MacVicar ’23, Cassie Potter ’23, and Deniz Uzun ’23 as “good community builders and cheerleaders for their younger sibs” who are “helpful, kind, and fun.”

“A lot of their research happened during COVID, and they formed strong friendships and bonds and continued to work together,” says Klepac-Ceraj.

The Klepac-Ceraj Lab studies the interplay of composition and function in natural microbial communities. Abatoni Kayisire, a biology and media arts and sciences double major, joined it as part of the First-Year Student Research Apprentice Program because, she says, she is “particularly interested in the intersection of computational design and biological concepts.”

Luo, MacVicar, and Potter all joined the lab the summer before their sophomore year. Luo admits that she didn’t really know what microbiology was; she was looking for a research job, and Klepac-Ceraj mentioned that she had an opening. “I kind of took that opportunity and ran with it,” says Luo, who just completed her honors thesis in biochemistry.

“I knew I liked bacteria,” says Potter, a biochemistry major. MacVicar, a biological sciences major on the pre-med track, was looking for hands-on research experience: “It’s a good way to learn more lab skills you don’t learn in classes.”

Uzun joined the lab last summer. “I love the group meetings we have every week,” says Uzun. “Everyone shares what they’re working on, and we can use other people’s projects to inform our own [research]. … It keeps us familiar with each other’s work and helps us streamline our own work as well. It’s a really important part of mentorship and community.”

Klepac-Ceraj says she sees the benefits of that mentorship in action as the older students train the younger ones so that they can hand off their projects before they graduate. Potter, an education studies minor, loves this aspect of their work in the lab: They are currently mentoring two sophomores who have very different learning styles, and figuring out how to explain concepts in a way that works for each of them is good practice for their future plan to teach middle school biology. Potter says they learned so much from the older students––most importantly, Steph Consuegra ’22 taught Potter never to be afraid to ask questions. “I’m always confused,” says Potter, laughing. “But she gave me the confidence to be outwardly confused and not just internally confused.”

As they approach graduation, the seniors are realizing how much they’ve learned from working in the lab. “It teaches you how to investigate questions and troubleshoot any problems that appear when you’re doing research,” says MacVicar. Luo says she thinks more independently now and is not afraid to investigate questions with unknown answers by herself: “You may not know the right answer, because no one may know the right answer.” As Potter puts it, working in the lab lets you be “a real scientist, rather than a student who is just told what to do.”

Uzun says she appreciates having had the chance to “struggle through” some harder concepts, learning when she should keep pushing herself and when she should take a break: “It’s all going to work out no matter how confusing things might seem in the moment.”

The seniors have accomplished a great deal during their time in the Klepac-Ceraj Lab. Abatoni Kayisire and Luo are co-authors on a paper about working with microbial community data, Potter is a co-author on a paper about the role of bacteria in the development of atopic dermatitis/eczema, and MacVicar is a co-author on a paper about microclimates in soil in the Galápagos archipelago. Post-Wellesley, Abatoni Kayisire will be a programmer at Julia, and MacVicar will be working in a lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. Luo will begin pursuing a graduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Oxford in the fall.

Klepac-Ceraj is also impressed by the interests and activities her student researchers pursue outside of microbiology. “They all have more than their achievements, their personalities get woven into the fabric of the lab,” she says. Potter is the house president of Bates and a member of the MIT gymnastics team. Luo, a music minor, sings with the Wellesley College Choir and Chamber Singers and is part of the Wellesley Asian Dance Organization. MacVicar is on the golf team and volunteers at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Abatoni Kayisire plays tennis, and Uzun, an English minor, is really enjoying her class on Ernest Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence.

Klepac-Ceraj hopes they will all consider the lab a “mini home” that they can always return to, even after graduating.

“I said it’s like ‘Hotel California’––you can check out any time, but you can never leave,” says Klepac-Ceraj. “And then they asked me what ‘Hotel California’ is, and I said, ‘Do I need to teach you cultural references and not just microbiology?’”