A summer at Stingray Bay and beyond

Biological sciences senior Vanessa Mahan thought she wanted to be a medical doctor. But after a semester’s coursework in cell biology, Mahan decided the profession was not for her. Further exploring her interests through a biodiversity course, Mahan found her passion — merging medicine with her love of animals.

Vanessa Mahan stands in front of the stingray tank exhibit at Stingray Bay, Kansas City Zoo.
Photo courtesy of Vanessa Mahan

And not just any animals. Mahan focuses on threatened or endangered species like whales, sharks, seals and turtles. This past summer, she interned as an education instructor at the Kansas City Zoo’s Stingray Bay, a 20,000-gallon “touch tank” designed to let visitors easily touch two species of stingrays and the smallest species of sharks. The internship gave her just the marine mammal conservation experience she was looking for.

“I learned that sharks have iodine and iron deficiencies, and they can’t eat unless you give them vitamins,” says Mahan. “With 5,000 people a day coming through the exhibit, we saw that the stingrays and sharks were well taken care of.”

The internship at Stingray Bay was one of four summer job offers Mahan received.

Her scientific job qualifications were fortified by the award-winning “Bionic Bowel” innovation project she and research partner Catherine Pollman, BSci ’19, created as part of S&T’s BioDesign and Innovation course taught by Julie Semon, assistant professor of biological sciences. Their invention uses bioactive glass to potentially change the pH level in the body of a Crohn’s disease sufferer. By including the biomaterial in an oral medicine that dissolves and prevents scar tissue, the two realized they could implant the glass in the human body via a pill to repair the damaged area.

In April, they pitched the project in the University of Missouri System’s Entrepreneur Quest Student Accelerator competition and won $5,000. In May, they crossed the next step by winning a $10,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield Healthcare Innovation Prize at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. With their winnings, Mahan and Pollman are starting animal trials for their proof-of-concept, and then will begin the patent application process.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done without being at S&T,” says Mahan. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else. We definitely get a lot of practical training that other schools don’t offer.”

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