Biology students conduct significant cancer research

Junior Nick Terrigino and senior David Nicholas are biology majors. Together, they have conducted crucial cancer research during their time in college. Both Terrigino and Nicholas wish to pursue further research in the future, as well as keeping medical school on the horizon. (Sarah Hashmi/Staff Photographer)

Biology majors junior Nick Terrigino and senior David Nicholas have spent their time in Geneseo not only involving themselves in a variety of extracurricular activities, but also performing research on cancer cells and their functions.

Before coming to Geneseo, both Terrigino and Nicholas had different hobbies; they came together, however, in their shared interest in biology. Terrigino based his decision to come to Geneseo on proximity to home. Meeting SUNY distinguished teaching professor of biology Robert O’Donnell, the professor overlooking their research, was a pull factor for Terrigino as well. 

“The fact that he was so close to all of his students, it really drew me to Geneseo,” Terrigino said. 

For Nicholas, Geneseo’s reputation and “beautiful community” drew him to attend.

While both Terrigino and Nicholas are pursuing a biology degree, they also are involved on campus with activities that enhance their studies. Nicholas plays the flute and saxophone in the jazz ensemble, works at St. Mary’s Church and works as a crew chief at Geneseo First Response. Geneseo First Response has provided an incredibly rewarding experience, according to Nicholas. 

“GFR is right up there with research with being fantastic and getting me involved,” Nicholas said.

Terrigino is a member of the medical fraternity Phi Delta Epsilon and has held leadership positions within the organization. The highlight of partaking in Phi Delta Epsilon was “being able to connect with people across grade years,” according to Terrigino.

The highlight of his time at Geneseo, however, has been his research with O’Donnell.

“Research has been the most rewarding, personally,” Terrigino said.

For both Terrigino and Nicholas, their experience as biology majors has been an exciting journey these past few years; challenging, but rewarding, according to Terrigino.

Under a directed study with O’Donnell, Terrigino and Nicholas continued their research on cancer drugs and on antigens. 

“I was doing a study with multiple cancer drugs, and David was looking at antigens,” Terrigino said. 

“What we’re looking at is if we treat certain types of cancer cells with certain drugs, do they increase the expression of the proteins (HLA) that help the immune system target the cancer cells,” Nicholas added. 

They focused on two specific drugs that carried out the task of increasing the expressions of the antigens. The two drugs—5-Azacytidine and Entinostat—are in phase two of clinical trial for breast cancer. 5-Azacytidine is also used to treat certain types of leukemia.

Throughout the research process, Terrigino and Nicholas learned more about the process of making scientific progress. 

“Underestimating the complexity of the biological systems is probably the toughest thing,” Nicholas said. 

Figuring out a new path when the original plan doesn’t work out is part of the fun of the research process—but it makes it all the more challenging, according to Nicholas.

Nicholas has spent five semesters completing this work, while Terrigino has done four semesters; they work around five-six hours a week on the research. 

“We don’t know what the result is going to be in the end,” Terrigino said. “It really feels like you’re in the thick of the science with it.”  

Both Terrigino and Nicholas have seen growth in themselves as well as within each other—especially in how to solve problems—and are more creative toward their solutions. 

Nicholas and Terrigino both hope to pursue research in the future and are thinking about taking a gap year, all the while keeping medical school on the radar. 

Nicholas wishes to pursue other research opportunities to gain more exposure to the treatments in certain fields, while also trying to help contribute to our understandings of how these drugs work.

“I can’t imagine being at Geneseo and not doing research,” Terrigino said. “It brings the textbook to real life—it’s powerful.”