Class of 2021
RA, Head RA
Field Hockey and Tennis Teams
Biology major, Mercedes (Mercy) Melo of Lehighton, PA, chose Cedar Crest College because of the small class sizes, ability to work one-on-one with professors in a hands-on environment and ample opportunities for undergraduate research.
While at Cedar Crest, Mercy was the president of Beta Beta Beta, or TriBeta, the National Biological Honor Society, president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), a resident advisor (RA) and head RA, a member of the field hockey and tennis teams, and a work-study employee in the Department of Biological Sciences. In her first year, Mercy took the opportunity to conduct independent research and it greatly shaped her Cedar Crest experience.
"Many other institutions only have research opportunities for upperclassmen, so being able to begin learning how to conduct research so early allowed me to be extremely well prepared for my career after undergrad,” Mercy says. “My first-year research experience jump-started my passion for conducting biological research and ultimately led me to the career path I am on today.”
Throughout her time at Cedar Crest, Mercy conducted research on the American kestrel, the smallest and most common falcon in North America, through a collaboration with Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, PA. Mercy worked alongside Cedar Crest faculty members in the biological sciences department. As a junior, Mercy was awarded a research grant from TriBeta to support her project entitled "Gastrointestinal microbiome biodiversity in developing American kestrel chicks." Her research explored how bacteria living in the gut of wild birds changes during chick development. She used the funds to purchase supplies and travel to a sequencing facility at Cornell University.
In January 2021, Mercy and biology major Courtney Zimmerman ’22 were authors with Allison Cornell, Ph.D. and JF Therrien, Ph.D. of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary on a research article published in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. The paper documents individual variation in American kestrel chick development. The students contributed to data collection in the field, lab work, preliminary data analysis and writing the paper.
“Being able to work with a phenomenal principal investigator... and many other faculty members in the biological sciences department provided me with a breadth of knowledge and a great pool of connections for my time after Cedar Crest,” says Mercy.
Mercy graduated in January 2021 and has been busy with full-time research ever since. She is a field technician at Hawk Mountain where she spends her days collecting data for her Ph.D. research project, an expansion of her undergraduate research on American kestrels. Mercy will be attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst this fall to pursue her Ph.D. in environmental conservation with a concentration in wildlife, fisheries, and conservation biology. Her new research project connects nine kestrel nest-box programs in five different states to investigate how populations of kestrels in different regions may be facing different challenges that are leading to declines. “This collaborative approach not only helps gather data on a variety of populations but has also provided me with numerous connections to ecologists and biological researchers across the Northeastern United States,” Mercy adds.
The goal of Mercy’s research is to determine why American kestrel populations are declining. “My favorite thing about my current research is that it is so multifaceted,” she says. “There are so many angles to look at the issue from. It’s such a puzzle to me, and I love putting together the different pieces to try to see the story they’re telling us.”
Mercy shares this advice for students interested in biological research or environmental conservation: “You can do it! Research seems scary to a lot of people since it’s all about exploring the unknown, but just knowing that it’s okay (and encouraged) to not know what you’re doing will help you tremendously. It wouldn’t be called research if we already knew the answer to the question. Trust your abilities and always ask questions to help guide you through the process. All it takes is one conversation with the right professor to get you started with a project and kickstart your research career- start that conversation!”