Mackenzie Simon-Collins, 2019 Cliff Townsend Scholar

Mackenzie Simon-Collins, 2019 Cliff Townsend Scholar

Published: Friday, August 30, 2019

For a recent Nease high school graduate, the summer of 2019 was spent immersed in marine research at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience. Mackenzie Simon-Collins, who will attend Johns Hopkins University in the fall, received the Whitney Laboratory’s Cliff Townsend Family Scholarship. The purpose of the scholarship is to provide local high school students with greater exposure to science and encourage them to consider scientific research as a career. During the scholarship, Mackenzie interned in Dr. Christine Schnitzler's laboratory, working with the marine organism Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus, a cnidarian that grows in colonies on the backs of crab shells.

In high school, Mackenzie was a member of her school’s band program and International Baccalaureate program. In her free time, Mackenzie likes music, dance, and aviation. Mackenzie is interested in both the medical field and environmental research. She aspires to become a surgeon with a PhD/MD in the hopes of being involved in the development of new procedures or surgeries. Mackenzie is passionate about helping people and conservation, which she hopes to integrate in her career by educating the public and working with international welfare organizations like Doctors Without Borders.

During the scholarship, Mackenzie worked alongside PhD student Justin Waletich for the majority of her time. This summer, they focused on optimizing a protocol for breaking down adult Hydractinia animals into living single cells to study the individual cell types that make up the organism. Recently, they also began testing conditions to deliver foreign DNA into Hydractinia embryos via electrical pulsing (electroporation) for the purpose of creating transgenic lines to study cellular processes in live animals more easily. Mackenzie also assisted postdoc Gonzalo Quirogas Artigas and lab technician Maddison Harman throughout the summer, learning more bench skills and about marine organism care.

“Working in the Schnitzler lab this summer taught me everything from basic bench skills to more complex research protocols, like single-cell dissociations and embryo electroporation. Even more importantly, I was able to meet a community of people who supported and encouraged me throughout the entire experience. I am very grateful for this opportunity, and I hope to come back and intern at Whitney again as an REU or in a different position,” said Mackenzie.

The scholarship is named in honor or Cliff Townsend, who was the curator and then general manager of the original porpoise attraction in the town of Marineland. During Whitney Laboratory’s early formative years, Townsend was extremely helpful in its development and served as a member of its administrative board.