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Camille Holmes ’19 comes from a long line of strong women. Her grandmother, Dorothy Holmes, in particular, was a pioneer, blazing the way for other women in the field of science. Holmes grew up with her encouragement and support, spending much of her childhood at her grandparents’ farm caring for horses, helping at their veterinary clinic and developing a love for animals—something that she’s still passionate about today while pursuing a degree in biology at SUNY Potsdam.

Her grandmother attended Cornell University’s veterinary school, and later enrolled in a Ph.D. program at a time when women were not pursuing advanced degrees. “She was always a big inspiration. She always tells me the story about when she walked into the dean’s office, after being denied entrance to the veterinary school, and the dean told her, ‘Well, you’re a woman, you don’t want to be out in a barn in the middle of the night birthing a calf.’ He was sitting behind a big mahogany desk wearing a suit, and she said, ‘You don’t quite like you could birth a calf in the middle of the night either.’ She was a very sassy woman, and he was taken aback, but she then got accepted into veterinary school and she went on to get her Ph.D. in microbiology. I was raised by very strong women who told me I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Holmes said.

In her youth, Holmes spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ farm, caring for her bay gelding horse, Commandment I, and helping her grandparents at their veterinary clinic. “I love working with the animals. I always wanted to be a vet because I thought that’s how you work with animals, but I found out that I could do research and still do what I love to do, without necessarily being a clinical practitioner,” Holmes said.

In high school, Holmes was accepted into New Visions, a unique program where she spent her senior year at Cornell University doing research and shadowing veterinarians at the vet school. While there, she got to work with her grandmother’s old friend, Dr. Doug Antczak, doing research on equine immunology.  “I was working with him and I was having an awesome time doing it! I was also shadowing at the vet school, and I started favoring the research aspect of it. I thought it was absolutely fantastic,” she said.

Holmes came to SUNY Potsdam in 2015 and immediately met another woman who was as inspirational as her grandmother—Dr. Sarah Sirsat, an assistant professor of biology.

“She’s been so helpful. I came to her the second week of classes and I said ‘I want to do research with you, what can we do?’ She was just really excited and completely welcoming. Throughout the years, I’ve gotten closer and closer to her, and she’s been supportive with the research, but also just as a person too. Unfortunately, my horse from childhood passed away last spring and she was there for me. It’s great to have someone who cares. She has me over family dinners sometimes too, it’s a lot of fun,” Holmes said.

“I’ve definitely loved the small community at SUNY Potsdam. It’s really great because every professor that I’ve had knows my name and knows my story and knows me—it’s kind of amazing! The three professors I interact with the most are Dr. Gordon Plague, Dr. Jan Trybula and Dr. Sirsat. I’ve taken classes with all of them, and they’ve been fantastic! The whole time that I’ve been here it’s been kind of like you’re in this big family, instead of just another number,” she said.

Under the guidance of Sirsat, Holmes has been immersed in a Presidential Scholars Research Project in Stowell Hall. In addition to the $1,800 a year that she receives through the program, she also gets another $600 through the Kilmer Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship, allowing her to buy all the necessary chemicals and supplies for her research—a project that is focused on the King Quail species, specifically Red Breasted King Quail that display different plumage color morphisms known as silver, wildtype and cinnamon variations.

“We had to take all these birds and breed them until we could get the recessive traits showing up to produce purebred lines—a very time-consuming process. We started out with a colony of about 20 birds and I’ve been breeding them for the last two years to produce all the different color morphisms that I need,” she said.

The silver, wildtype and cinnamon variations are separated into different cages on the shelves of Sirsat’s lab in Stowell Hall, with heat lamps keeping them toasty at all times. “Just based on observations, we’ve noticed that the cinnamon and the wildtype are more successful, and the silver a little bit less successful at growth, survivorship and reproduction,” Holmes said.

She said that the gene causing the silver plumage color may be related to differences in physiological traits. She’s now ready for the next stage of her research. This fall, she will be taking muscle samples from the birds to look at how their mitochondria function and see how well they are processing food and energy. She wants to find out if the silver variety is less successful due to poor mitochondria function and poor energy production. “I’m trying to look deeper and see if there’s some underlying force that we can decipher,” she said.

In addition to her research, Holmes is an accomplished student who has maintained a 4.0 GPA during her entire time at SUNY Potsdam. This year, she is also the president of the Biology Club. Holmes plans to take the club on several trips, including a visit to Cornell University to tour the veterinary school and the university’s biology facilities—the same place where she regularly does research with Antczak, most recently on equine herpes virus I, a virus that causes paralysis and other complications in horses.

With just one year left at SUNY Potsdam, Holmes is trying to figure out her path after graduation. Despite her love for animals, she plans on shifting her research focus to human diseases such as HIV and influenza when she goes to graduate school. “I’m looking at applying to graduate school for Ph.D. programs in immunology. I’m hoping to research vaccine production or how diseases interact with their hosts—hopefully doing something that will help people in the long run,” Holmes said.

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Article and photos by Jason Hunter