Young microbiology major stars in the lab

Closeup of Natasha Puzon standing in front of a lab.
Natasha Puzon

Natasha Puzon is just now wrapping up her second year of undergraduate courses at Washington State University, yet the young microbiology major has already found herself in a state-of-the-art laboratory working to determine the effectiveness of a promising antibody against a deadly species of hantavirus.

As a student in the STARS and MARC programs at WSU, Puzon has earned the unique opportunity to work in assistant professor Bonnie Gunn’s recently formed laboratory in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health, where Gunn and her team are researching how antibodies use different innate immune cells to provide protection from viral infection. It is work that could one day lead to life-saving medical advancements.

“It feels crazy to think about the applications of research outside of the lab because when I’m in the lab I get so focused on the small picture experiments that it’s hard and kind of baffling to think about the effects our research may have someday,” Puzon said. 

STARS — Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies – gives exceptional undergraduate students like Puzon the opportunity to begin research in their first year, complete a Bachelor of Science degree in as little as three years, and earn a doctorate in as few as seven years. 

“Natasha is the first STARS student we have had in the lab, and I have been really impressed by her engagement, intellectual curiosity, honesty, and commitment,” Gunn said. “She is bright and has a natural talent for science, so she has picked up on techniques and concepts very quickly, which has allowed her to work independently on her project. I have no doubt that she will succeed in graduate school and beyond.”

Puzon, who is from Enumclaw, Washington, is on track to graduate in the spring of 2023 with a bachelor’s in microbiology and has already had the opportunity to work in three labs in the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU, gaining a wide variety of experience and finding what may be her calling.

“When I came to WSU,” Puzon said, “I thought I was going to be more interested in bacteria, but after I started working with Dr. Gunn, I found out I really enjoyed studying viruses and antibodies, so now I want to get my Ph.D. in immunology.”

In addition to being in the STARS program, Puzon has also been accepted into the National Institutes of Health-funded Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. The two-year program of scientific research, leadership development and graduate school preparation is designed for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. Students in the program receive a stipend, tuition assistance and additional research experience.

“The MARC program is a unique opportunity for underrepresented students to get financial, academic, and social support as they prepare for a career in the biomedical sciences,” said Samantha Gizerian, associate dean for Undergraduate Education and a program director for MARC. “Because of the support provided by MARC, students can really focus on their education and getting the research experiences they need to be successful in a Ph.D. program and beyond without having to worry about how they are going to pay their bills.”

Puzon said MARC and STARS have strengthened her resume and helped her gain invaluable experience and skills that will help her network and thrive within her scientific field.

Despite her commitments to research and taking 18 to 19 credits a semester, Puzon has excelled in the classroom with a 3.98 GPA. 

“It is challenging at times,” Puzon said, “but I have always had to work really hard for the grades I get, so honestly, if I were taking fewer credits, I don’t think I would be doing less work – I would just be studying harder for the other classes.” 

Her dedication has not gone unnoticed.

“Natasha is a wonderful student to work with. She is enthusiastic and asks really insightful questions,” said Gizerian, who is also a professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience. “Moreover, she is very good at making people feel at ease and is a great ambassador for our college through her participation in our CVM Promoters program, whose members represent the college at community and student events.”

Puzon is considering numerous options for graduate school, but her hope is to remain at WSU and earn a doctorate in immunology and infectious disease and complete her studies under Gunn. 

“I am looking forward to graduate school because it is more focused on what I am actually going to be doing in my future,” Puzon said. “I am hoping to stay here because I really like Dr. Gunn as a mentor. She is a great person, an excellent teacher, and I feel we work well together.” 

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