Undergraduate Research

Sara McDonald ’25

OUR Featured Researcher: Sara McDonald ’25

Sara McDonald
Photo credit: Jacob Strauss

Sara McDonald (she/they) is majoring in Neuroscience. She is conducting mentored research under Professor Gunnar Kwakye. Her project is titled “Investigating the neuroprotective effect of the plant extract, Ginsenoside Rg1, on Huntington’s disease".

Please describe your project: 

The research that I have been working on has focused on the use of natural, plant-derived compounds as potential therapeutic agents for neurodegenerative diseases. Specifically, I have looked at the effects of compounds that are derived from the Panax ginseng species on Huntington’s disease (HD). HD is a genetic and deadly neurodegenerative disease that is characterized by progressive loss of motor control in addition to cognitive and psychiatric disturbance. Currently, there is no disease-altering treatment for HD, but there are pharmaceutical options that aim to alleviate the symptoms of HD. Because of the unaffordable prices of medications for a significant portion of the population, these treatment options are not accessible for some of those most vulnerable to the effects of HD. By exploring the effects of plant-derived compounds on HD, we hope to find a therapeutic agent that is both disease-altering and accessible. 

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a genetic, fatal, and incurable neurodegenerative disease. By examining the effects of natural compounds on HD, we aim to find a therapeutic agent for the disease that is accessible to all populations.

Why is your research important?

This research is important to both the understanding of neurodegenerative diseases and to health in a sociological aspect, as it considers the importance of finding accessible treatments to populations that are more vulnerable to disease. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

Doing this research consists of conducting various experiments in a laboratory setting as well as analyzing and interpreting the data gathered from these experiments. This also includes spending time planning experiments and carrying them out in a careful and timely manner.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

Thus far, we have gathered data supporting that the plant-derived compound we have been using does enact neuroprotection in a cell model of HD. 

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I have showcased my research at the Oberlin Summer Research Institute (OSRI) Symposium as a Oberlin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (OSURF) fellow. Additionally, I have presented a poster on the research at the Midwest-Great Lakes Undergraduate Research Symposium (mGluRs) 13th annual conference.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research experiences in college?

I was fortunate enough to be chosen to be a part of the Science and Technology Research Opportunities for a New Generation (STRONG) program which allowed me to have research experience within my first year of college. Without this program, I do not think I would have sought out research opportunities. Because of having research experience in my first year, I have grown a passion for conducting research and plan to have a career in research, which I never had planned on doing before.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

My favorite aspect of conducting research is planning out the experiments. I love connecting how one experiment’s results lead to the next experiment’s plan. My favorite aspect about this project specifically is the societal importance and impact that it has.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?    

My part in this research project would never have been possible without the encouragement and support of Professor Kwakye, and I never would have made the decision to pursue research as a career without his mentorship and guidance.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?   

Because of starting research so early, I have been able to use the practical skills that I have learned to understand concepts that I am learning in classes that I am taking now and classes that I will take in the future. Additionally, research has contributed to my professional development as it has allowed me to realize what I am passionate about and what I want my career to look like.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?      

Research is incredible. Discovering something new is worth all the time and effort. Developmentally, it allows you to learn more both academically as well as whether or not you want to incorporate research into your future.