Emma Mask ’20 has been interested in science since she played with bugs as a child growing up on a farm in Lytle, Texas.
Mask is one of Trinity’s Semmes Distinguished Scholars in Science. The prestigious award is a full-tuition scholarship given to two or three incoming first-years who display outstanding aptitude in the sciences. The award also includes a $5,000 research stipend and gives students easy access to professors and mentors.
Mask, who majored in biology with a concentration in cellular and molecular biology, found a community among her fellow Semmes scholars, a few of whom she met through Trinity’s swing dancing clubs. "One of the ways the Semmes scholarship benefitted me was that I had this group of people I could ask for advice or just have someone to talk to,” Mask shares. “I knew they were all interested in roughly the same things as me and had similar goals after undergrad.”
Mask began her research career at Trinity in the lab of chemistry professor Corina Maeder ’99 studying the Dib1 protein, which plays an important role in RNA splicing at the spliceosome in cells. Mask began working in the lab during the spring of her first year at Trinity and proceeded to spend the summer doing research for the lab.
In her sophomore year, Mask began an internship at Texas Biomedical Research Institute studying virology and immunology. What began as an eight week internship later turned into an honors thesis and full-time job once Mask graduated from Trinity.
At Texas Biomed, Mask has studied Zika virus and HIV. She uses gene expression data to examine how differences in gene expression could explain differences in how a host’s immune system responds to infection. "I take this data that tells me whether genes are being expressed more or less after a certain amount of time, and I use that like puzzle pieces to see what biological pathways these genes fit into," Mask says. She hopes her research can give scientists a better understanding of molecular immune responses and can have applications for developing treatment and cures.
Mask’s experience at Trinity has prepared her for a career in scientific research. "When I first started at Trinity, I thought, 'I'm here to learn science,'” she explains. “But Trinity taught me that and how to do science."
Mask took many science courses at Trinity that encouraged her to be a scientist herself. However, one course stands out among the rest as particularly useful to Mask’s development as a scientist.
Every spring, the biology department offers an experiential learning course in which students are introduced to a wide range of laboratory techniques and are encouraged to develop their own research inquiries. It is a required course for all biology majors that focuses less on covering material and more on giving students the tools to answer their own research questions through experimental design and techniques. Mask remembers, "[It taught me] how to think like a scientist, not just know things that scientists know."
If Mask could give one piece of advice to her first-year self, she would advise herself to take risks and explore other disciplines. "Don't say ‘I'm a biologist, and that's all I'm going to focus on.’ Try different things,” she says. “One of the great things about Trinity being a small university is that the professors understand you're taking other subjects and doing extracurriculars. Definitely take the risk."