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South Carolina Honors College

  • Mould award winners on stage receiving their certificates at the 2024 Honors Revocation ceremony.

Matters of the heart and homeland

When Meaghan Arnold began a session in the lab, she usually donned a lab coat and gloves before checking the latest interactions in her yeast two-hybrid system. She was looking for a particular reaction between two proteins, WWP1 and WBP2, that simulated how they might interact in the human heart—could this never-before-proven interaction help explain the causes of heart failure and cancer?

For Carlos Sanchez-Julia, a day of field research started in the thick of Ecuador’s summer humidity. He and a local field guide set off on a motorcycle, navigating the roads of the Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve, ready to ask the local farmers about cacao, the bean used to make chocolate: What variety they grew, how they cultivated it, when they harvested. How did their practices affect the land they farmed—land that many of them legally cannot own?

Meaghan Arnold and Carlos Sanchez-Julia posing next to large, lit up 'SCHC' block letters as they hold their award certificates.
Meaghan Arnold and Carlos Sanchez-Julia at the 2024 Honors Revocation.

Arnold and Sanchez-Julia might have had different questions, methods and settings, but they now share a similarity: Their efforts earned them the 2024 William A. Mould Senior Thesis Award. Honoring the legacy of the late William A. Mould, inaugural dean of the Honors College, this award recognizes outstanding thesis projects with broad impacts in the students’ fields of study.

This year, the two winning theses demonstrate the different avenues that research projects can take, from the human heart to the heart of a forest, guided by curiosity, tenacity and a focus on important interactions.

Shining a light

Arnold, a biological sciences major, arrived on campus in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Though she was eager to join a lab, the pandemic prevented her from doing so her first year, and her lab classes were online. Despite the virtual simulations of lab work, her curiosity sparked.

“I learned more about just how important the microscopic level of everything in biology is. You hear about diseases or anatomy, and stuff like that is very big picture,” says Arnold. “Learning that there were so many microscopic things going on that needed to be figured out, and that there were ways to study and understand these things was just so fascinating to me.”

Seeking in-person experience, she joined Jason Stewart’s lab her sophomore year and gained valuable insight into DNA repair and foundational lab skills. It was Stewart who recommended Arnold to Lydia Matesic, whose lab was studying WWP1, a protein that has been linked to heart failure.

Arnold took to the new lab instantly, enjoying the experiments and working with cells. “I also, very unexpectedly, found myself enjoying the intellectual aspect of it all, doing the problem-solving of ‘did this work?’” she says.

This interest, and Arnold’s rapid progress, was evident to her research mentor. “Never before have I seen a student come into a project and take such clear ownership of the direction and interpretation,” wrote Lydia Matesic about Arnold’s work. “In 19 short months, Meaghan has jumped into research that was already in progress in my lab...all the while [becoming] proficient in the foundational knowledge and technical skills needed to complete that project and to move forward in a new direction.”

Meaghan Arnold smiling at Discover USC 2024.
Meaghan Arnold at Discover USC.

The new direction? Enter the WBP2 protein.  According to Matesic, Arnold pointed out that both WWP1 and WBP2 had been linked to cancer. What if they were interacting in the heart, and what if those interactions led to cancer and heart failure? Before Arnold’s research, nothing was known about exactly how these proteins caused these diseases.

“Combined, these disorders account for the lion’s share of mortality worldwide,” wrote Matesic. “By shining a light on WWP1 and WBP2, Meaghan has opened the door to new avenues for drug design that could impact large numbers of individuals with cancer or heart failure worldwide.”

Arnold shone that light through two years of research. Her 65-page thesis, “Exploring the interaction between WWP1 and WBP2 in the heart,” chronicles her process for proving this phenomenon.  “My work,” she explains, “is really on understanding at the molecular level what is happening in order to cause these diseases to propagate.”

After months of painstaking work in yeast systems, and funded by Honors College and Magellan research grants, Arnold proved that WWP1 and WBP2 had a natural affinity to interact. The next step was to test the two proteins in human heart tissue, using immunofluorescent staining to detect the possible presence of WBP2 and its potential interactions with WWP1.

Meaghan Arnold with group.

This time, the lights shone for Arnold. “Looking through the microscope and actually seeing my proteins in the human heart was pretty amazing,” she says.

It's an incredible breakthrough, and Arnold is eager to continue. “Based on my preliminary findings,” she says, “[the proteins’] location is at the membrane of a lot of cardiac myocytes, which is an area where a lot of signaling pathways start from, really primes them to cause a lot of these downstream mechanistic effects that cause those diseases to propagate.” From Arnold’s work, scientists can develop targeted therapeutics to treat the diseases caused by WWP1 and WBP2’s interactions.

Arnold hopes to share her findings with the rest of the scientific community through publishing a version of her thesis, and she will continue to impact an even broader community through her work as a physician. The Wilmington, Delaware, native will continue her education in the Palmetto State, attending the USC School of Medicine in Greenville.

Her passion for research burns as brightly as ever: “There could be a lot of benefit to having more interdisciplinary interactions between [projects]...and using that to work off of each other and better the understanding of both fields.”

Conservation and conversation

Early in his collegiate career, Sanchez-Julia wasn’t sure what social sciences research looked like. The international studies and economics double-major from Irmo, South Carolina, knew that he wanted to have a positive impact on the world, but wasn't sure how research fit into the plan.

“Through classes, we [were] always reading a bunch of really cool research papers and these different studies,” Sanchez-Julia says. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s kind of cool. I guess I have to do this for Honors at some point. So what can I do?’”

The answer was hidden deep in the rainforests of Ecuador, and Sanchez-Julia's route to his research project was a multi-year expedition. During his sophomore year, one of his professors, David Kneas, researched in Ecuador. His interaction-centered experience fascinated Sanchez-Julia.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds so fun,’” he reflects. “You just get to walk around and talk to people all day? That’s great.”

Later that semester, Sanchez-Julia's older sister, then a Ph.D. candidate in biology at Tulane University, detailed her recent trip to the Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve in Ecuador. She connected her brother with a Tulane professor leading a field school that summer, and before he knew it, Sanchez-Julia was bound for Ecuador. 

Carlos Sanchez-Julia presenting at the 2024 Honors Thesis Symposium.
Carlos Sanchez-Julia presenting at the Honors Thesis Symposium.

There, he met a master’s student from Tulane, Liat Perlin, who would eventually serve as the second reader for his thesis. Perlin introduced Sanchez-Julia to the issues surrounding cacao farming on the preserve and the farmers’ lack of land rights, as well as the conservation NGO Fundación para la Conservación de los Andes Tropicales (FCAT). By the end of the summer, Sanchez-Julia’s head was “buzzing.”

“I [couldn’t] solve any of these big pressing issues that everybody’s talking about, and I was frustrated,” Sanchez-Julia recalls.

This frustration brought him back to Ecuador the following summer, funded by Honors and Magellan research grants. Sanchez-Julia had only 23 days to gather as much information as he could about how land tenure affected the farmers’ decisions about planting cacao: How and why did they choose between environmentally friendly and higher-producing, but more harmful, varieties.

Throughout, he was keenly aware that he was researching peoples’ homeland and livelihood. “I [wanted it] to be something that’s not just research for me and my sake, to check off a requirement,” he says. “It’s research relating to actual people and things going on in this area.”

This was no small feat. “Carlos maintained steadfast commitment to community engagement and respect in his fieldwork, ensuring his asking of questions was respectful and that all engagements with local people were approached with gratitude and reflexivity,” wrote Robert Kopack, Sanchez-Julia's thesis director. “Carlos faced every challenge that comes in the research process head on, always looking for ways to improve the document.”

Carlos Sanchez-Julia holding coffee beans.

His conscientiousness and passion for the project yielded important insights. In less than a month, Sanchez-Julia administered 28 surveys to cacao farmers, conducted two interviews with government officials and facilitated a focus group of farmers—all in Spanish—to learn more about the delicate balance between conservation, production and, for the farmers, survival.

Conversations and research culminated in a 74-page thesis, “The influence of neoliberal and ecoimperialist contexts on conservation: Insights from Ecuador’s Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve.” By the end of the project, however, Sanchez-Julia was left with more questions; cacao and conservation are a complicated combination.

“I don’t think that conservation and people’s livelihoods necessarily have to be something that goes against each other,” says Sanchez-Julia. “But to do that, you need open dialogue and conversation.”

Sanchez-Julia hopes to continue that conversation in his master’s studies. He was awarded an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree scholarship and will participate in the MERGED Global Environment and Development program at the University of Copenhagen and University of Warsaw. In the meantime, he’s in contact with a researcher from the University of Hawaii who hopes to utilize his research for a biology study.

And he’s still committed to making a positive impact: “The biggest part of this research and my whole experience was just talking to people and learning from them about how solutions that benefit everybody can come about. And all that is, is conversation...and just having a genuine interest and desire to learn from someone else—not learn about somebody else, but learn from them, and learn how you can help if you can.”

An exciting year for research

Two other theses were selected as finalists and recognized at the Honors College Revocation Ceremony on May 2:

“Phytoplankton biomass and community responses to additions of limiting nutrients in Lake Murray, SC” by Haley Durbin, marine science. She was nominated by Jay Pinckney, Ph.D., School of Earth, Ocean and Environment.

“Eat or be eaten: Taste, appetite and consumption as key ingredients in Quicksand and Bitter in the Mouth” by Reagan Green, English. She was nominated by Catherine Keyser, Ph.D., English Language and Literature. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.