shola

Catherine Shola (right) and her sister (left) have visited Disney almost every year since Catherine was five years old. 

Senior biotechnology major Catherine Shola has visited Disney World with her parents almost every year since she was five years old, and it’s evident to everyone around her that she’s a passionate Disney fan. When Shola was looking online for post-grad opportunities, she saw that Disney World was offering professional biotechnology internships and jumped at the chance. 

Now, Shola will intern at the Living with the Land attraction at Epcot, which features a boat ride through the greenhouses and shows guests how plants grow and what different lands are like. She’ll be the biotechnology intern at the greenhouses, growing plants and tissue as well as giving tours of the greenhouses to park visitors. The managers described it to Shola as an opportunity to run her own biotech company.

“I had been sending out tons of applications for jobs, so that was just another one. I was more nervous about the phone interview,” Shola said.

In high school, Shola developed an interest in biomedical engineering. She said that her whole life, people told her that a great way to help people was to become a doctor, so she wanted to make equipment to help doctors. After discovering how much physics is involved in biomedical engineering, Shola decided on biotechnology instead.

She heard about the Disney College Program while at JMU and considered applying, but ultimately decided not to lose a semester of school. While looking online for jobs and internships, Shola discovered Disney offered professional internships including biotechnology positions that fit her major. After applying, she was interviewed by the head manager. Shola will live in Disney-sponsored apartments 20 minutes from the park and begins her internship June 12.

Shola’s friends and roommates, Monica Gerber and Beth Terry, helped encourage her to apply for the internship. It was an ongoing joke in their apartment that Shola should work at Disney since she’s an avid Disney fan. 

“She was sitting on our couch and was like ‘Disney has a biotech internship,’ and I told her she should apply to it,” Gerber said. “She was concerned about the internship not being heavily research-based, so I told her, ‘You love science and you love Disney. You should go for it.’”

Gerber and Terry are also senior biotechnology majors. Gerber and Shola met through a mutual friend during an organic chemistry class they took sophomore year. Terry and Shola grew to be friends freshman year because they had almost every class together. 

“One of our first exams was for biology. And the night before, we were studying in ECL,” Terry said. “In a moment of tired frustration, I said, ‘Life would be so much easier if we were plants,’ to which Catherine replied, ‘Plants are so marginalized in this world.’ Junior year, we became roommates and our first canvases were of those two sayings.”

Associate professor of biology Janet Daniel has been a mentor for Shola for two years and has helped Shola on her journey. Although Shola hasn’t had her for any classes, the pair worked together on plant research and bonded over their studies. They grew plants in a lab and analyzed the proteins to see if there was a salt response in the hopes of discovering if plants can grow in a salty environment and making a discovery that could be applied to agricultural development.

Shola emailed Daniel two years ago inquiring about research in Daniel’s lab. They’re working with two versions of a specific plant, Arabidopsis thaliana — one that is wild type, meaning as it exists in nature, and another that has a transport protein gene “knocked out,” meaning that protein isn’t present in the plant. Daniel and Shola grow these two strains of Arabidopsis on salt plates to see if they grow differently. Shola is responsible for setting up two major protocols in the lab. The first is for hydroponics growth chambers and the second is for measuring plant roots using image J. 

Along with her biotechnology major, Shola’s career at JMU has included membership in the color guard of the Marching Royal Dukes, which Gerber and Terry are also members of. Hearing about the MRDs encouraged Shola to attend JMU.

“I think joining the MRDs my freshman [year] was impactful in giving me a home and getting 500 friends right out the gate,” Shola said.

Although she’ll miss the mountains and the atmosphere that surrounds JMU, Shola is eager to take the next step in her life. She wants to go to graduate school and is considering going into policymaking or law. Shola hopes that the Disney internship will guide her with future endeavors, but her friends and mentor know that wherever Shola ends up, she’ll be successful.

“She is a ray of sunshine,” Gerber said. “She always makes me smile. She’s very supportive and encouraging and always wants the best for her friends. We’re always there for her, and she’s always there for us.”

Contact Katie Downing at downinkm@dukes.jmu.edu.