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Marcia O’Connell


Developing Young Biologists

Mother knows best.

During embryogenesis, maternal genes and proteins instruct cellular division and cellular fate of developing embryos. Only later on in development do embryonic genes turn on and begin taking charge. Biology professor, Dr. Marcia O’Connell, uses zebrafish (Danio rerio) as the model organism in her lab to study genes that play important roles during development.

o'connell faculty profile 1Her research primarily focuses on cytoplasmic polyadenylation element binding (CPEB) genes, which code for proteins involved in activating protein translation on mRNA strands. She also works with another set of genes coding for RNA-binding proteins based on her collaborations with Dr. Amanda Norvell, a colleague faculty member in the TCNJ Biology Department.

Studying these genes allows O’Connell to answer questions about the regulation of embryogenesis in zebrafish. Students in her lab learn to apply molecular biological techniques to the study of embryogenesis.

“My background was absolutely a tremendous preparation for research,” explained the biology professor. “It was only kind of right toward the end that I combined that with teaching.”

O’Connell studied Biology at the College of William and Mary as an undergraduate, and then she later received her Ph.D. in Cellular and Developmental Biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After earning her Ph.D., O’Connell completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD for four years.

“When I finished my post-doc, it was time to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up. I applied to all kinds of things,” said O’Connell.

Prior to TCNJ, O’Connell had very little teaching experience and, despite coming from a family of educators, she didn’t aspire to becoming a teacher. However, when she arrived on TCNJ’s campus she found herself right at home.

“TCNJ manages to continue to bring faculty on board who believe they can do both, not only devote tremendous amounts of time to being an educator, but also do real research.”

As a professor, O’Connell is able to continue her learning and researching, but also interact and mentor students.

“I feel really proud of bringing students into a field that is not easy to work in, because I can then watch them grow and demonstrate their ability,” stated O’Connell.

“It is just a really nice atmosphere to work in and a great way to know students in a way you simply don’t in a class usually,” said O’Connell about the TCNJ environment.

natella student profile 2Natella Maglakelidze (’15) works in O’Connell’s research lab and has taken her courses, so Maglakelidze has first-hand experience working with the professor.

“People who take her class see that she is super excited and passionate. You can’t help but want to learn what she is excited about,” explained Maglakelidze. “She’s happy when she comes to work, which makes people around her happy.”

“Their [students’] enthusiasm helps me . . . It is so nice to walk into the lab and have a bunch of students there to work with,” stated O’Connell.

In her spare time, O’Connell enjoys traveling and reading. She is also the Chair of TCNJ’s Medical Careers Advisory and has been involved in other active roles and positions throughout her time at TCNJ. For example, she has served as Chair of the Biology Department and as a faculty representative to TCNJ’s Board of Trustees.

One piece of advice O’Connell wants to share with students is, “Enjoy learning in college. College is a time for you to really develop and make your own decisions, and set your own path. Be patient, there is time to do the things you want to do.”

– Danielle Leng

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