Science & Technology

Passion for Research Propels USU Biochemist to Nutrition & Integrative Physiology Grad Program

Honors student, Kinkead Capstone Award recipient, Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District intern and recent graduate Marcus Hayden says his USU undergrad career prepared him well for doctoral studies.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

Recent USU Honors graduate Marcus Hayden received the 2024 Joyce Kinkead Outstanding Honors Capstone Award in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. The Kaysville, Utah native, pictured holding a mechanical aspirator used to collect and transport small numbers of mosquitoes, is working as an intern for the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District this summer. He begins graduate studies at the University of Utah this fall. (Photo Credit: SLCMAD)

While still a student at Utah’s Farmington High School and during his undergraduate career at Utah State University, Marcus Hayden pursued a variety of research projects and science activities crossing diverse interdisciplinary borders. Hayden, an Honors student who graduated from USU in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, received USU’s Joyce Kinkead Outstanding Honors Capstone Award in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines this past spring.

“This award, with the Peak Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship I received previously, neatly bookended my research journey at Utah State,” Hayden says. “I am very grateful and very humbled by these prestigious honors.”

The Kaysville, Utah native is currently working as an intern for the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District. In the fall, he begins a doctoral program in nutrition and integrative physiology at the University of Utah.

Hayden’s path to science began with participation in STEM activities at an early age, and the intrepid scholar seized upon extracurricular academic pursuits.

“I was lucky to work as an aquaponics intern at USU Kaysville, where I got to manage fish, grow hydroponic produce and help create new hydroponic methods,” he says. “Realizing I could continue to pursue hands-on learning experiences by attending USU in Logan, I knew Utah State would be a great fit for me.”

Entering Utah State in fall 2020, Hayden remained undaunted by pandemic restrictions and closures. The Undergraduate Research Fellow began volunteering in biology faculty mentor Noelle Beckman’s lab during his first year. There, he pursued a chemical ecology project exploring how secondary metabolites in the leaves of plants from Panama affect seed dispersal.

His next research foray, through the Talmage Chemistry Research Internship program at Brigham Young University, involved synthesizing oligosaccharides of a strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae for vaccine development.

“That experience was pivotal, as I realized to wanted to work in research that more closely impacted human health,” says Hayden, who paired a biology minor with his biochemistry major.

Back in Logan, the undergrad joined Abby Benninghoff’s lab in the Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences, where he crafted his award-winning Honors capstone project, “Cocoa Polyphenols Modulate the Gut Microbiome in a Site-Specific Manner in Mice.”

“From my initial interview with Dr. Benninghoff, I could tell she believed in me,” Hayden says. “She and her graduate student Eliza Stewart taught me so many research skills and helped me develop as a scientist. Writing the 70-page manuscript for my capstone project was one of the most challenging things I did as an undergrad. Dr. Benninghoff and Eliza encouraged me at each step and patiently answered my many questions. That experience prepared me well for graduate school.”

Prior to developing his capstone project, Hayden secured a USU Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant, along with his Peak Fellowship, during which he pursued a run-up project to his capstone, “The Impact of Docosahexaenoic Acid and the Total Western Diet on the Gut Microbiota.”

“The Peak Summer Research Fellowship not only helped me with my research, but also helped me develop my science communication skills,” he says.

Hayden secured another off-campus opportunity to hone his research skills with the AmGen Scholars program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

“In this 10-week program, I investigated intrinsic circadian rhythms in gut motility,” he says. “I attended a wide breadth of research seminars, talked with students from around the country who were at similar points in their academic careers. This program broadened my horizons about how I can make a difference as a biomedical scientist.”

Hayden presented his research, for which he earned the Kinkead Award, in multiple venues.

Coincidentally, Hayden took an English class, the History of Writing, with Kinkead — a refreshing shift of gears from intensive science research — in spring 2021.

“I remember it fondly as one of my first in-person classes at Utah State,” he says. “Dr. Kinkead and her class reminded me of how much I love learning.”

Another class that ignited the undergrad’s passion for knowledge was a biochemistry laboratory class taught by Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty members Sean Johnson, Ryan Jackson and Nick Dickenson.

“I got to purify and characterize a protein in one semester,” Hayden says. “The course was one of the most challenging I ever took, but also the most rewarding.”

Outside of the class and lab, Hayden, who received the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s Harris O. and Eleanor Y. Van Orden Award in Biochemistry, devoted time to STEM outreach.

“Outreach matters a lot to me because it inspired me, as a young teenager, to pursue a career in science,” Hayden says. “At Boy Scout meetings, I met older high school chemistry students who explained such phenomena as rust, fermentation and galvanization. Chemistry seemed like magic to me, and through that exposure at a young age, I was shown how exciting science can be.”

Jump-starting USU’s oSTEM chapter was challenging following the pandemic, says Hayden, who stepped up as president for the group as students returned to in-person activities. The chapter provided innovative STEM learning activities at the College of Science’s Science Unwrapped public outreach gatherings, and also provided a space aimed at helping students feel accepted at Utah State.

“I sought to create a space for students to gather and belong, as I learned during the COVID pandemic how important gatherings are for people’s well-being,” he says. “I especially hoped to gather LGBTQ scientists and engineers.”

Two spring 2024 events Hayden says he was proud for oSTEM to collaborate on were the Summer Science Job Seminar and Queer Prom.

“We teamed with USU’s Women in Science club and Miss USU 2023 Regan Tracy on the Summer Science Job Seminar, which was aimed at helping each other build our careers,” he says. “For Queer Prom, we worked with USU’s Queer Student Alliance and the Queer Christiana Initiative to create a festive gathering to celebrate the end of the semester. Through both of these events we reached and benefited many students with encouragement and camaraderie.”

Hayden also carries fond memories of fun with friends during moments of downtime from busy academic assignments.

“A friend and I agreed to dress as popstars — I was Elton John; she was Stevie Nicks — for The Howl,” he says. “We loved dancing to the music of the Jackson 5, ABBA and Sylvester at the Hub’s silent disco. After that day, I always thought of the silent disco, when I passed the Hub.”

He and friends also enjoyed spontaneous fun when they happened upon a rope swing by the canal near 800 East and 1000 North in Logan (bringing flashlights for subsequent visits), as well as country swing dancing at Sage Hall.

“Those were great times with friends, but one of my favorite things to do after a long day of studying was to bake cookies, cook a stir fry or make a salad to reward by body and mind for all of the hard work they did during the day,” he says.

Hayden’s days are currently filled with lab and field work in the Salt Lake City area, as he studies how mosquitoes have developed insecticide resistance.

“We hypothesize that insecticide-resistant mosquitoes are producing more detoxification enzymes to deactivate insecticide,” he says. “So, we developed an experiment to investigate how insecticide exposure affects gene expression in both insecticide-resistant and insecticide-susceptible mosquitoes.”

This fall, as he enters the doctoral program at the U, Hayden hopes to continue research he started at Utah State.

“I found my research niche studying how diet affects the mammalian gut microbiome, and I hope to continue similar work in my Ph.D. program,” Hayden says.


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


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