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A Deeper Dive with Phi Beta Kappa Nicole Molnar ’15

A Deeper Dive with Phi Beta Kappa Nicole Molnar ’15

When Gators pass through the hallway that leads to the Head of School’s office, they are greeted by a long line of Phi Beta Kappas, graduates of RCDS who’ve gone on to be inducted into the nation’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor society. Phi Beta Kappa Day is an RCDS tradition that annually honors a PBK the Tuesday after President’s Day. This year’s honoree, Nicole Molnar ’15, developed a love of science and art at RCDS. She pursued the dual passions as an Honors student at TCNJ, majoring in biology, minoring in fine art, and conducting undergraduate research in a developmental genetics lab.

Read on to learn about Nicole’s journey from RCDS to her present position at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

When did you first come to RCDS?

I came to RCDS in the second grade with my twin brother, Christian. Our mom thought we were distracting each other, being in the same class in public school, and that we needed more mental stimulation to challenge us more. Ultimately, it was the right decision because we both have grown as individuals.

Your two biggest passions at RCDS were science and art. How were those interests fostered?

I think I’ve always been drawn to science, and I got a really strong foundation at RCDS. My science teachers were Mrs. Tilmont and Mr. Garside — both were big inspirations to me. Their classes were very engaging. I remember when Mr. Garside demonstrated how fire extinguishers worked. He literally pulled the fire extinguisher and sprayed it on another student’s back to show how the solid carbon dioxide will freeze and stop the fire. It was this, ‘Oh my gosh’ moment that obviously stuck with me. 

Mrs. Petersen (Head of the Art Department) was also a big influence. I would try to get out of gym all the time to go to the art room. I just found myself reorganizing my home studio and I still have a lot of the art I created in her class. So, I’ve always had these two strong loves for art and science, which people are like, ‘Whoa. That’s so different.’ In my opinion, they’re not so different – they’re both effective ways to communicate and share ideas with the world.

Where did you attend high school and college after RCDS?

I went to Communications High School which is focused on media and art. It was a very important time of self-discovery for me. Being in a smaller school with a lot of creative thinkers…I found my people there. We took science courses but weren’t as immersed in a scientific course of study. Although I was enamored by the communication field, I knew that I needed to be drawn back into science.

Applying to colleges, I was focused on smaller schools, where I’d be learning from professors rather than teaching assistants, in a more hands-on environment. The one-on-one experience is very important to me; it’s how I learn best. At first, I wanted to get far away from New Jersey, and applied to The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) as a backup. But I was immediately accepted into the Honors Program, offered scholarships and grants. After receiving my acceptance package, I toured TCNJ and fell in love with the community, as well as their academic programs, especially in the biology program. The hands-on learning environment at TCNJ enabled me to participate in research in my undergraduate years there, which is how I gained the necessary laboratory experience that allowed me to qualify for my current job at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Cancer Institute.

What kind of research did you conduct as an undergraduate?

I worked in Dr. Marcia O’Connell’s developmental genetics lab, where my research focus was on studying the gene family of hnRNPs, specifically, the hnRNP D subfamily, and their roles in zebrafish development. hnRNPs are a diverse group of RNA-binding proteins that play key roles in regulating the transcription of DNA into RNA, and the translation from RNA to protein for the cell to use. In Dr. O’s lab, we used zebrafish as a model organism to understand the roles of these genes during embryonic development. Zebrafish offer many advantages as model organisms in the study of vertebrate development for a multitude of reasons. For example, about 70% of their genes are similar to human genes. I began by shadowing the lab as a junior, and senior year I took a position in the lab as a full-time research student.

A lot of the research I did combined what I had learned in my genomics and bioinformatics class and applied it to our lab’s research interests. Using the knowledge from that class, I conducted proteomic research, where I mapped the genetic information in bioinformatic software to build computer generated protein models to correlate the different genes to different functions. To expand on our knowledge of the gene set, I also performed whole-mount stains of the embryos at various developmental stages and with different genetic variables to visualize the effects of this genetic manipulation on the whole embryo, to clue in on what the function of these genes may be.

Wow! It sounds like you made some significant contributions to the research project.

I just really wanted to educate myself. The background work I did in the zebrafish lab turned into 50 pages of my honors thesis. The research I did, along with other student work, was utilized in a manuscript that Dr. O’Connell and I authored and edited. It was a lot of work and I’m thrilled to be first author on the paper that was submitted to an academic journal.

Congratulations! Nicole, you are being honored on Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) Day at RCDS this year. You were inducted to PBK as a junior — only 7.5% of juniors are eligible for membership in the society. What did achieving this honor mean to you?

I’m grateful my hard work paid off. Especially since COVID-19 hit my sophomore year, and I took organic chemistry and a lot of core science classes online. I learn so much better in person than virtually and am a very hands-on, tactile learner. So having that separation from the classroom was a challenge, but nevertheless, I did persist.

Do you have any advice for RCDS students on PBK Day?

Find something you are passionate about, that you want to do every day. The cliché that “You don’t have to work a day in your life if you actually enjoy what you are doing,” is so true. I’m so excited to come to work every day and excited to be in this field doing research because I’m passionate about it. If you are passionate about something you can make a career of it.

Tell us about your current position.

I'm working at the Rutgers University Cancer Institute in Newark. My official title is Research Teaching Specialist III, I’m essentially a research assistant. I work directly under the principal investigator Dr. Miskolci who was hired last year. We’re still in the setting up stages of the laboratory. Her focus is on using zebrafish as a model organism to study immunity and how certain white blood cells can promote inflammation and wound healing. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn. I'm taking a few years in between college and graduate school to decide if getting my master’s and Ph.D. or medical school is the right path for me. 

Nicole Molnar ’15 graduated Summa Cum Laude from TCNJ in 2023. A plaque commemorating her accomplishments will join the RCDS Phi Beta Kappa wall in the hallway outside of the Head of School’s office.