Navigating Interdisciplinary Research

The summer after her junior year at Dordt, Jocelyn Zonnefeld participated in the prestigious Synthetic Biology Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

A National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded program, Synthetic Biology REU enables 10 undergraduate students to spend the summer carrying out independent laboratory and / or computational synthetic biology projects done under the guidance of Northwestern University faculty mentors in departments such as molecular biosciences, pharmacology, civil and environmental engineering, and more.

Zonnefeld, who is originally from Sioux Center, had the opportunity to work with Northwestern University’s Assistant Professor of Engineering Science and Applied Mathematics Dr. Niall Mangan on the statistical analysis of biological systems. Mangan holds a Ph.D. in Systems Biology from Harvard University.

“My project was designing genetic circuits to control how much of specific genes are being read and expressed in a cell,” she explains. “I spent most of my time at Northwestern University’s library, working on fine-tuning an algorithm so that it would give out the best results.”

The REU program gave Zonnefeld an inside look into the skills and drive that are necessary for success in STEM careers. She also says she felt well-prepared to participate in the Synthetic Biology REU experience. Being from a smaller university like Dordt provided her with the one-on-one attention that allowed her to thrive in an REU environment.

“My primary investigator was impressed by how independent I was,” she says. “That’s something I attribute to Dr. Mike Janssen, my mathematics professor at Dordt; he encouraged me and my classmates to hone our ideas and take our research into our own hands. That drive helped me to contribute this past summer.”

Janssen says that Zonnefeld is a model student: “inquisitive, hard-working, and great to work with. She’s a great team member who is willing to put in the work on her own, but really shines when she and her collaborators are bouncing ideas off each other. She asks great questions, and she has the tact to gently push back on ideas that need more thinking.”

“Jocelyn is profoundly curious about God’s world and the way various aspects of creation interact with one another,” adds Janssen. “Her coursework is also interdisciplinary. She’s taken many courses in biology, mathematics, statistics, and data science (and been successful in all of them), so she’s well-suited to join an interdisciplinary research team.”

After graduating from Dordt, Zonnefeld plans to attend an East Coast university to pursue a Ph.D. in a quantitative field.

“I’m really proud of Jocelyn, and I am excited to see what she does after Dordt,” says Janssen.