So Much More than Just Research

So Much More than Just Research

MOUNT OLIVE – Research is all about trial and error.  Sometimes you succeed.  Sometimes you fail.  Sometimes you discover that there may be no one single right answer to a problem. Instead, there may be many. However, nothing compares to learning by doing. At the University of Mount Olive, that is true whether inside the classroom or out.  Take it from recent May graduates Cristina Aguilar and Aki Kitagawa.

A native of Guanajuato, Mexico, Aguilar moved to North Carolina when she was eight.  She graduated from Spring Creek High School in Mount Olive and then enrolled at UMO to major in biology and minor in chemistry.  While at UMO, Aguilar learned a lot about her subject matter, but she also learned a lot about herself.

“I found out that I can do stuff,” she said. “One of my main fears was giving presentations in front of a class, no matter how small it would be. However, with the help of my professors, I learned how to control that nervousness I used to feel. This helped me to better get my message across when giving a presentation. Another thing I learned is that I can teach.  I found this out through tutoring. These two things, among others, are very important in the science field and to me, so I am really thankful for those professors and friends who helped me along the way.”


Aguilar also discovered that even in the failure, there are lessons to be learned.  Her senior project dealt with the effects of Alzheimer’s treatment drugs on neural cell growth.


“My project consisted of testing the effects of Huperzine A (a substance extracted from a Chinese plant called Huperzia serrata; used to slow down memory loss) on neuroblastoma (cancerous brain cells). I used the cell line IMR-32 and learned how to culture and maintain them in a healthy state.”


Aguilar experienced several problems along the way because the cells would form undesirable clumps.  However, with trial and error, she figured out how to prevent them from forming. It was her first success.


“During Alzheimer’s there is something called oxidation that happens to the neurons which kills them,” she said.  “I tested the effect of Huperzine A on this cell line and found out that this drug decreases the amount of oxidation and potentially protects these cells against other damage.  This was my second success.”


Perhaps, however, the most important lesson learned by Aguilar was that the ‘error’ in trial-and-error learning can be the ticket to meaningful learning.

“If you are willing, every mistake or surprise will teach you a lesson,” she said.  “It is the way you handle these situations that you learn from them.”


That lesson will take her far in her future pursuits which include obtaining her Ph.D. in biochemistry and becoming a surgeon.


“My ultimate dream is to become a surgeon and open a hospital to help the needy, providing treatments with no charge,” she declared.   “I also want to contribute to a cure for one of the diseases of the brain.”


Aki Kitagawa is another student who has learned by doing.  Kitagawa was born in Sasebo, Japan and grew up in Wilsonville, Oregon.  Looking for a college where he could study science and music while continuing to compete for cross country and track, Kitagawa enrolled at UMO in the fall of 2012.  He initially planned to study biology and become a veterinarian.  However, after taking a few biology courses, he realized that was not his passion.


“I discovered I really enjoyed chemistry,” he said.  “Chemistry explains what happens in our everyday life, from cooking to quantum mechanics. Becoming a chemistry student was one of the best decisions I have made in my life.”

For his senior research project, Kitagawa chose to work on a water quality project and researched different ways of water treatment. He was particularly interested in electrochemical water treatment that aims to degrade toxic compounds by running electricity through wastewater.


“For my project, I chose aluminum electrodes that are affordable with the target compound, atrazine, which is most commonly used pesticide in the United States and also is banned in Europe,” he said.  “However, because of a limited budget and analytical instruments, my research advisor, Dr. Jason Pajski, encouraged me to be creative by using alternative resources to determine the difference in the chemical composition between pre and post treatment.”


Kitagawa’s initial findings showed some valid proof of the effect of the treatment.  He hopes to continue his research at the postgraduate level.

“I can learn so much from a chemistry research topic,” he said.  “I get to pick what matters to my own project and learn about the related disciplines with curiosity and interest. Although obtaining data can be difficult and time consuming, when I get what I am looking for, the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is so exciting that it is indescribable.”

Kitagawa has been accepted into the master’s program in environmental chemistry at the University of Nottingham in England.  In the future he would like to be involved in research that relates to environmental and green chemistry: water quality projects, efficient energy generation, and/or improvement of chemical synthesis.

“Ultimately, I want to become a chemist who can make a difference, even if it is a small difference,” he said. “Just as my professors at UMO made a difference in my education, I want to be able to improve lives, both as an educator and researcher.  For me education is not an assignment, it is a tool to become a better scholar and global citizen.  I believe that UMO provided what I needed to be ready for the next step of my journey.”

The University of Mount Olive is a private institution rooted in the liberal arts tradition with defining Christian values. The University, sponsored by the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists, has locations in Mount Olive, New Bern, Wilmington, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Research Triangle Park, Washington, Jacksonville, and in Smithfield at Johnston Community College.  For more information, visit

Cristina Aguilar

Aki Kitagawa