Science & Technology

USU Undergrad Biochemists Head to Utah's Capitol Hill Jan. 18 to Present Research to Utah Legislators

In the Hevel Lab, Bella Lonardo and Zaharah Rossi are exploring the roles of enzymes and proteins in intracellular communication.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

Undergrad biochemistry researchers Zaharah Rossi, center, and Bella Lonardo, right, are among Aggies ascending Utah's Capitol Hill on Jan. 18 to present to state legislators and the public. They’re investigating intracellular communication with faculty mentor Joanie Hevel, left. (Photo: USU/M. Muffoletto)

Imagine you’re standing in the rotunda of the Utah Capitol building and a person falls to the floor, suffering from an apparent heart attack. What would you do? You’d probably grab your phone and call 911, correct?

Now imagine a different scenario: A person trips in the same rotunda, skins their knee, but gets back on their feet and is basically OK. What would you do? You might grab a first aid kit.

“It’s unlikely you’d grab a first aid kit for the heart attack victim or call 911 for the person who skinned their knee,” says Utah State University biochemist Joanie Hevel. “That’s because you understand the rules of engagement for varied levels of emergency response.”

If you fetched a first aid kit for the heart attack victim, without taking any other action, the result could be life-threatening, says Hevel, associate professor in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Conversely, calling 911 for a skinned knee could earn you a stiff reprimand from emergency responders.

“Just as accurate, efficient communication keeps a society healthy, efficient communication among cells in the human body keeps a body healthy,” Hevel says. “Miscommunication between cells can result in carcinogenesis, cardiopulmonary disease or neurodegeneration.”

And that’s what she and undergraduate researchers Bella Lonardo and Zaharah Rossi are investigating.

“We’re trying to uncover what’s guiding the decisions behind how proteins communicate with other proteins,” says Rossi, a biochemistry major from Price, Utah.

Rossi and Lonardo are among 27 Aggies who’ll present research posters to state legislators in Salt Lake City on Jan. 18, as part of 2024 Undergraduate Research Day on Utah’s Capitol Hill. The annual event, initiated in 2000, brings scholars from Utah State and the University of Utah to the hub of legislative activity to highlight the importance of university research in the welfare of local communities and in preparing Utah scholars to tackle future challenges.

Rossi and Lonardo, who each secured USU Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grants to pursue their research, use a variety of lab techniques, including recombinant protein expression and gel electrophoresis.

“We essentially hijack E. coli bacteria into making proteins of our choice,” says Lonardo, an Honors student from Salt Lake City who is majoring in biochemistry and biology.

Using genetically encoded, bright green fluorescent markers, the undergrad researchers can observe and track the expression pattern, location and dynamics of the proteins and enzymes they’re studying.

“We can see a glowing green tag,” Rossi says. “It’s pretty cool stuff.”

Understanding the basic mechanisms underlying cellular processes provides a framework to approach treatment of varied diseases, Lonardo says.

“Understanding these processes can aid drug design for cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease and other conditions,” she says.

Rossi says this knowledge also contributes to effort to better understand the pathways causing these diseases.

Rossi and Lonardo previously presented their research at USU’s Student Research Symposium during Research Week 2023, where they received the Undergraduate Poster Award for Physical Sciences. They’re also two-time recipients of awards recognizing their lightning pitches at USU’s 2022 and 2023 Hansen Life Sciences Retreats.

Rossi, who graduates from Utah State this spring, has been accepted into USU’s biochemistry master’s program. In the future, he’s considering pursuit of a doctoral degree, possibly in toxicology. Lonardo also graduates in 2024 and plans to study medicine.

Undergrad biochemists Bella Lonardo, left, and Zaharah Rossi received the Undergraduate Research Poster Award in Physical Sciences at the Student Research Symposium during USU Research Week 2023. (Photo Credit: USU/M. Muffoletto)


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Joanie Hevel
Associate Professor
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry


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