The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department is proud to be called home to some of the most outstanding undergraduate students in higher education. These students display a high level of dedication, not only in furthering their education but in their desire to be on the frontlines of scientific discovery.
Meet Emma Stockham, a Sophomore from Stafford, Virginia, majoring in Microbiology. Emma’s interest and love of science was influenced by a decision that was made long before she was even born. Her father, Rex Stockham, had pursued his education in the sciences and in November of 1984 entered on duty as a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In his role as a Special Agent he worked for the FBI’s laboratory, K-9 Response Team, and Evidence Response Team Unit. As a child Emma fondly remembers talking with her dad about the new science and technologies that were being introduced to help solve cases. “I remember when the SirchVac was being used more often and wondering how many more discoveries were being permitted due to this scientific invention,” said Emma.
Her dad would also regularly bring home bloodhound puppies in which he was training for search and rescue purposes. He brought them home in order to play outside and interact with kids, encouraging positive interactions with people as well as exposing them to environments other than the training area and field. It was Emma’s constant exposure to her dad’s scientific work, and her ability to learn about the constant advancements in his field that developed her interest in the scientific discoveries that were possible through science. “I wanted to be a part of, and contribute, to this field,” said Emma.
On September 11, 2001, a day that will forever be remembered, United Airlines Flight 93 was commandeered by terrorists. After passengers attempted to retake the plane, it crashed in an abandoned strip mine near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, igniting 7,000 gallons of aviation fuel that burned for several days after the crash. Emma’s dad, Rex Stockham, a Supervisory Special Agent at the time, deployed to the crash to survey the impact crater and isolate evidence sites in the surrounding area. After a full day he left the site. In April of 2015 he was diagnosed with colon cancer and unfortunately on October 8, 2016, at the age of 53, succumbed to the disease. Extensive research by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health established sufficient evidence that his exposure to the air in and around the Pennsylvania crash site after the September 11, 2020 attack either precipitated or accelerated his development of his condition. Supervisory Special Agent Rex Stockham is honored, and remembered, on the FBI’s Wall of Honor for his diligent and sacrificial service to his country.
Emma chose Penn State to engage in her undergraduate studies because of its large-school atmosphere and the environment it provided. “I wanted a school that did not limit my potential but encouraged me to find my own place out of the many opportunities it provided,” says Emma. “Additionally, I chose Penn State because of its dedication to encouraging undergraduate researches and appreciating the potential they provide to research.” Emma had learned of Penn State’s dedication to undergraduate research from her stepfather Raymond Lattanzio, a Penn State Alumnus in psychology. He spoke to her about his peer experiences, both conducting and participating in research, and spoke highly of Penn State’s accessibility to information that allowed her to conduct her own research online while applying for colleges.
As a First-Year student, Emma participated in the LEAP Successful Scientist of the Future Program, under the direction of Associate Teaching Professor, Gregory Broussard. Through the program she completed research on bacteriophage and even isolated and named her own vibriophage, Cena, which was added to the Phage DNA Bank. She performed procedures that she would later utilize as an undergraduate researcher and learned new technologies such as electron microscopy. “This small addition allowed me to understand that even the smallest scientific contribution can be instrumental,” said Emma. “I want to continue to add to the growing bank of scientific knowledge in the hope of improving the lives of those around me.”
Currently, Emma is an undergraduate researcher conducting research in the Bull and Hocket Laboratory under the direction of Postdoctoral Scholar, Abdelmonim A. Ahmad Ebrahim. Together, they are working to isolate and purify bacteriophage specifically used to control plant and mushroom diseases. Emma’s specific role within the project was testing soil samples from the surrounding area ad creating possible phage containing samples. After plating these samples on various strains of bacteria that infect mushrooms, she incubated the plates and then analyzed each to discover whether any plaques were formed. She then purified the plaque with multiple rounds of serial dilutions, eventually resulting in a pure phage sample to later be used for mass propagation of the phage. Her ultimate goal is to obtain enough phage to create a “phage cocktail” that could one day be used as an organic pesticide. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 guidelines, she has not been able to return to her research, but hopes to do so very soon.
Outside of the laboratory, Emma is fascinated with the nonfiction literary, podcast, and film genre, True crime, in which the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real people. She is fascinated by the community of responders, investigators, and scientist that come together to help bring closure to the families and communities affected. “My father would speak to me about the heaviness of his contribution to search and rescue/recovery work. It made me realize that others can offer their skills to bring justice to those affected,” says Emma. “I want to contribute to this community by offering my future skillset in the laboratory that hopefully will be able to be used to solve said crimes.”
Additionally, Emma enjoys spending her time both hiking and running. She was a member the cross-country team all throughout high school, and most recently returned to running as a way to remain healthy and an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. This past summer Emma spent time hiking the trails in the surrounding State College Area, with her favorite being the Mount Nittany trails. She found that hiking provided her another opportunity to stay healthy, while also enjoying nature. “It was a great way to get out of the house without putting myself, or others, at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After graduation, Emma plans to earn her Master’s of Science degree in Forensic Science. Her future aspiration is to follow in the footsteps of her father, Rex Stockham, and pursue a career within the FBI laboratory, contributing to search and rescue/recovery work and offering her skills to bring justice to those affected. We are very proud to have Emma as a student within our department and look forward to watching her career progress!