Biology Undergraduate Research

Two biology students gather samples from the river for a summer research project.

PLNU biology students have the opportunity for hands-on research experiences in a variety of settings. Our students have participated in research locally at government agencies and universities, while others have journeyed outside San Diego to study bison in Nebraska, mammals in the Costa Rican cloud forest, and more. You will take on an active role in projects, using sophisticated instrumentation and computational resources to gain practical skills and experience as you share in the failures and triumphs of original research.

The variety of research opportunities available to you as an undergraduate at PLNU is a rare commodity. Since the inclusion of undergraduate research in the mid-1970s, PLNU has been committed to providing students the space to study fascinating subjects in compelling settings. Acceptance into the undergraduate research program is instrumental in preparing you for the research aspects of graduate and medical studies, and also increases the likelihood of acceptance into such programs.

Ongoing Research Projects


Dianne Anderson, Ph.D.
The Anderson group conducts research on how students learn challenging biology concepts. The products of this research are used by teachers, researchers, and professors in classrooms across the country.  A diagnostic test called the Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection (CINS) is useful for pre and post-assessments of students from middle school through college.  A series of concept cartoons has also been developed to assist middle school and high school science teachers in teaching various topics .  The cartoons provide teachers with a tool to probe the ideas held by students so that they can adjust instruction to help to move students to scientific understanding. Currently, the collection includes many cartoons on natural selection, as well as others addressing osmosis/diffusion, mitosis/meiosis, energy & matter, and metabolism.  Future research will aim to expand the topics addressed in the cartoons, as well as to translate some of the existing cartoons into Spanish.

Walter Cho, Ph.D.
The Cho research group focuses on the study of the biodiversity, biogeography, and population connectivity of marine fauna. We are particularly interested in the invertebrate associates of deep-sea corals and the ecology of deep-sea habitats including seamounts and trenches. We use a variety of molecular and ecological tools to study the ecology of these communities from all around the world including the North Atlantic seamounts, Tasmanian seamounts, the Gulf of Mexico, the Kermadec Trench, and Hannibal Bank off of Panama. Research

April Maskiewicz Cordero, Ph.D.
As a biology education researcher, one path of my work is the development, implementation, and analysis of highly collaborative data-rich ecology problem situations designed to help undergraduate students develop ways of thinking and reasoning in biology. The other path of my research involves identifying “best practices” for preparing college science students and students-at-large to bridge the science and faith conflict so that they can engage with peers and their churches in a respectful as well as a theologically and scientifically informed manner.

Dave Cummings, Ph.D. and Dawne M. Page, Ph.D.
We want to understand how bacteria resist the actions of antibiotics and how these resistance mechanisms are able to spread to bacteria that were previously susceptible. We are especially focused on genetic elements called plasmids: small, circular, mini-chromosomes that can often be shared among bacteria. Resistance plasmids are captured from bacteria in nature, fully sequenced using NextGen sequencing technologies, and annotated, mapping the various genes they encode. The behavior of the plasmids, such as transferability to different species and expression of antibiotic resistance, is then studied in the laboratory. Our research suggests that resistance plasmids are common in nature, where they can acquire new genetic features before emerging in clinically relevant bacteria. Research

Mike Dorrell, Ph.D. and Heidi Woelbern, Ph.D.
Our research focuses largely on identifying novel cancer therapies that are more effective and overcome the side effects associated with current treatments. We focus on angiostatics (blocking tumor vascularization to starve the cancer) and mechanisms by which chemotherapies can be targeted directly to the tumor. We also work closely with the Lowy Medical Research Institute to study degenerative eye diseases. Research

Kristopher J. Koudelka, Ph.D.
The Koudelka research group centers on the chemical modification of plant and bacteria viruses for use as drug delivery and imaging vehicles. His students specifically engineer viral nanoparticles (VNPs) to efficiently and specifically transport drugs to sites of disease. These disease specific VNP formulations can also be modified with dyes or contrast agents to aid in earlier detection of diseases such as a cancer. Research

Michael McConnell, Ph.D.
The McConnell research group studies the bacterium known as Salmonella anatum and is particularly interested in its lipopolysaccharide, which is the major structural component found on the surface of this organism. O-polysaccharide is the part of lipopolysaccharide that is most exposed to the surrounding aqueous milieu. It is highly antigenic and is a target for modification by several temperate viruses that infect and lysogenize Salmonella anatum bacteria. The lab uses a variety of genetic and biochemical approaches in its quest to understand both the normal biosynthetic pathway for O-polysaccharide as well as the modifications to that pathway that are introduced by lysogenic viruses. Research

Mike Mooring, Ph.D.
My research in Costa Rica is at the interface of behavioral ecology and conservation biology. With our local collaborators, my students and I are conducting a community based conservation project in a cloud forest ecosystem. We survey jaguars, pumas, and other large mammals using a network of camera traps, and characterize population genetics by collecting felid scat with the assistance of scent detection dogs. Research

Brandon Sawyer, Ph.D.
The Sawyer research group focuses on three main areas: maximal exercise testing in the forms of the VO2max and critical power, cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment with novel exercise approaches including high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and issues related to obesity including energetic compensation responses to exercise interventions and the ability of individuals with obesity to perform high intensity exercise. The cardiovascular disease work utilizes a non-invasive assessment of the root of cardiovascular disease (endothelial dysfunction) via high resolution ultrasound. This ultrasound technique allows us to assess the artery’s ability to dilate under stress and serves as a very good predictor of cardiovascular disease.

San Diego Zoo Global
The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park have been able to provide many summer research opportunities for PLNU Biology majors interested in the environmental field. The student projects vary each year depending upon zoo needs and funding, but in recent years up to six students have participated each summer. Most research projects involve behavioral observations of primates and other species housed in zoo exhibits; students have also worked as intern keepers in the reptile house, analyzed long-term collection data, and worked with zoo scientists on publications. Research