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A Scholarship Is Born

By Krista Weidner

Sarah Donaldson's Passion Lives On

From her earliest days growing up on a Warren County dairy farm, Sarah Donaldson loved animals, especially dairy cows. She also loved a good puzzle. At Penn State, she was able to incorporate both these passions into her studies, then her career. Sarah was working as a molecular microbiologist in the college and engaged to a Sarah Donaldson (photo courtesy of the Donaldson family)fellow Penn Stater when a car accident in June 2008 ended her life at age 28. Now, to honor her life and work, her family and friends have endowed a scholarship in her name.

“Sarah was brought out to the barn in her stroller as an infant and never left,” says her mother, Pamela Douglas-Fontello. “She loved being around the dairy cows. And she always had a scientific mind. She excelled in school from kindergarten on—constantly challenging herself and learning. It was a natural progression for her to go into research.”

An active 4-H’er as a child and teenager, Sarah raised and showed award-winning dairy cows at county fairs. During her junior year at Wilmington Area High School in Lawrence County, she was accepted into the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Agricultural Sciences, a program where 64 of the state’s top high school juniors and seniors spend five weeks in summer at Penn State’s University Park campus working on research projects. “That’s when she fell in love with Penn State,” says her father, Mike Donaldson. “When it was time to apply for college, she only sent in one application.”

“All through high school, Sarah had an ever-growing pile of mail from schools throughout the country,” adds her mother. “But she knew she was going to Penn State. She couldn’t wait to get there, and once there, Penn State was her world.”

After a freshman year at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, Sarah moved to University Park. “We were glad she got her start at a smaller campus,” her father says, “but there was never any doubt she wanted to be at University Park.”

In 2003, Sarah received her bachelor’s degree in animal bioscience from the Schreyer Honors College. She continued on to graduate school, earning her master’s degree in 2006 in pathobiology. After graduation, she was hired as a member of the Veterinary Extension and Field Investigation Group and worked as a senior research technician in a veterinary public health lab under the direction of Bhushan Jayarao, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences. For nearly nine years, she contributed to research on mastitis and milk quality, food safety, and public health.

Beth Houser (photo by Steve Williams)Beth Houser stands in the lab where Sarah worked on a number of research projects.

“Sarah worked on a number of research projects in our lab,” says Beth Houser, a fellow research technician and graduate student. Projects included looking at antimicrobial-resistant bacteria shed by dairy cattle, foodborne pathogens in raw milk, and Salmonella in raccoons of western Pennsylvania. As part of her master’s work, Sarah examined ceftiofur-resistant E. coli shed by dairy calves. “Ceftiofur is a pretty high-powered antibiotic,” Houser explains, “and she was looking at dairy calves as a reservoir for these resistant E. coli.

“In our lab, we examine how animal diseases can be transferred to humans, whether through direct contact with the animal or by eating products that come from the animal,” Houser continues. “So we bridge into public health and food safety as well. We’re concerned about the risks involved with food animals.”

Jayarao’s lab is known for its expertise in microbiology of human pathogens, as well as veterinary microbiology. Research projects often cross college boundaries. When Sarah was offered an opportunity to work on another important human health issue with a pediatric neurosurgeon, she jumped at the chance.

Steven Schiff, Brush Chair Professor of Engineering and director of Penn State’s Center for Neural Engineering, was working to pinpoint the pathogens that cause infections leading to hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, in infants in Uganda. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1.5 million newborns die of infection each year, and the majority of infections occur in developing countries. In East Africa, most of the children undergoing surgery for hydrocephalus had infections as newborns, but the origin of the infections is unknown.

“I’m in an engineering science department,” says Schiff, “but my colleagues in veterinary and biomedical sciences are superb microbiologists. I was talking with them about this problem and what we could do. Dr. Jayarao and his lab said if I could get samples from these Ugandan infants, they could use DNA analysis to look for evidence of bacteria.”

Sarah Donaldson (photo courtesy of 
the Donaldson family)

Schiff returned to Africa, set up a small forensic lab, and began shipping specimens back to Jayarao’s lab.

Sarah Donaldson working in the lab in Henning Building.

“Sarah carefully extracted the DNA from the samples, amplified it, and began to get sequences out to see what types of germs, if any, we might match,” Schiff says. “It’s painstaking work and she did a fantastic job.” Through her analysis Sarah found that almost every infant with hydrocephalus arriving for surgery had bacteria in their spinal fluids. More specifically, she noticed a predominance of acinetobacter, bacteria that might be infecting babies through contact with farm animal manure.

“So, we think the dominant source of infections in these babies may come from the close proximity of farm animals,” Schiff says. “In developing countries like Uganda, newborns experience living conditions that babies in industrialized countries are never exposed to. If we find out which animals are transmitting acinetobacter, then come up with ways to avoid that early exposure, it would make a huge impact on the health of these infants.

“Sarah’s research was instrumental in getting this project off the ground,” he continues. “Now we’re applying to the National Institutes of Health to fund an international cooperative project in which we’ll work closely with Ugandan physicians over a period of years to close the loop on what remains unknown. With the techniques Sarah used, we’ll screen newborns in their first week or two, then follow them to see which ones get hydrocephalus and identify which germs are present. We have a strong alliance with people in industry, so when we figure out the causes, they can help us develop low-cost diagnostic kits so hospitals in developing areas can test and screen infants. We hope to begin preventive trials because, in the end, that’s what counts—preventing disease in the first place, rather than dealing with the surgical aftermath.”

Research challenges such as the hydrocephalus project are precisely the kind of work Sarah relished. “She got a huge amount of satisfaction from her lab work,” says her father. “Dr. Jayarao said he could always count on Sarah to figure out a tough problem. She found a wonderful mentor in him and learned a lot from working in his lab.”

“Sarah lent her research knowledge to all members of the lab,” Jayarao says. “She was an invaluable source of ideas. Her farm background and practical knowledge proved an exceptional resource to her co-workers and in her own research. She mentored many undergraduates and collaborated with lab mates on countless projects. Sarah was diligent, determined, and meticulous, setting a good example and high standards for others.”

Sarah’s lab mates recall their time spent with her fondly. “She kept everyone smiling, which made for an easy-going research environment,” says Houser. “Her attention to detail not only enhanced her work but meant no forgotten birthdays, no plants left unwatered, and no undergrads without daily lab chores.”

Sarah’s family and friends wanted to honor her memory in an appropriate way. Because of her generous spirit and love of Penn State, they decided to establish the Sarah Christine Donaldson Memorial Trustee Scholarship in the College of Agricultural Sciences within days after her death. They contributed $50,000 to endow this scholarship, which will aid undergraduates with financial need. First preference will go to students in veterinary and biomedical sciences.

Mike Donaldson“We want Sarah to have a continued impact on the world,” says Mike Donaldson, “and we feel this is the best way to do it. Sarah received a lot of financial aid for her Penn State education, so, appropriately, the scholarship is based largely on need.

Mike Donaldson speaking of Sarah at the Scholarship and Awards Banquet last October.

It’s a good fit. We’ve been impressed with everyone we worked with at Penn State to set up this scholarship. They’ve helped us bring something good out of this tragedy.”

Tom McFadden, who would have been Sarah’s father-in-law, says the scholarship is important to his son, Ryan. “He and Sarah were going to be married in September,” he says. “After the accident, Ryan wanted very much to put something in her name so her memory would live on. He did much of the leg work needed to get the scholarship started.”

Ryan McFadden adds, “We wanted to try to make the best of a terrible situation. Sarah and I met at Penn State, and she loved the University. It means a lot to me to have her memory live on at Penn State.”

If you are interested in contributing to the Sarah Christine Donaldson Memorial Trustee Scholarship, please contact Mark Theiss, major gifts officer in the college, at 814-863-1373 or mjt118@psu.edu.