Isabelle Malouf was so into science she wore it to prom. The gown that she made with organza and sequins had a bubble-type skirt that resembled a bacteriophage. A dress and a virus, it was part of the Daring Night Attire – or DNA – collection she created for a high school design class.
“It was fun taking something like that and making it pretty,” said Malouf, a University of Mary Washington senior. “A lot of molecular biology stuff is gorgeous.”
These days, rather than fashion, she channels her passion for science into zebrafish. Through them, she’s studying an herbicide that’s been linked to cancer. Her research, along with her hair color – she changes it weekly –make Malouf a standout on campus. And, as a face in UMW’s new branded photos, she hopes to make science seem more accessible, especially for women.
Growing up in Boston, she learned to expect the unexpected, living in foster care and attending three different high schools. She was a sophomore when someone – a biology teacher – finally saw her potential.
“That was a big change for me,” said Malouf, who began taking accelerated courses, tutoring classmates, and thinking about college. She loved Mary Washington’s beauty and size, but its reputation for undergraduate research is what reeled her in.
Inspired by mentor Associate Professor of Biology Dianne Baker, she launched her project – “acute and long-term effects of atrazine on sexual development in zebrafish” – as a junior last year.
“Her enthusiasm’s infectious. It came through from the beginning and it hasn’t lagged yet,” Baker said of Malouf. “She’s learning a lot about the process of science and how to really interpret results. By trouble-shooting when methods don’t work, she’s learning more than she would in a regular course.”
Malouf monitors the fish from their juvenile stage to adulthood, looking for signs that the atrazine she’s exposing them to has caused feminization. She measures hormone levels, tests results, and sends samples out to be sequenced. The fish must be fed twice a day, every day, and dissection is tedious since their organs are tiny.
A financial grant she received for her research this fall will help her continue her work. Monetary support might mean more to Malouf than to some, since she’s paying for a portion of college herself, with help from her grandparents and financial aid. She’s worked as a camp counselor, in food service for Sodexo and as an Eagle Landing resident assistant.
She’s also a domestic violence volunteer, avid tweeter and artist, working recently with biology professor Mike Killian, who retired this spring, to sketch illustrations for biology lab notebooks.
With graduation in sight, Malouf’s exploring post-baccalaureate programs. She hopes to pursue a Ph.D. and, eventually, to teach. And she’s counting on the research experience she’s gained at Mary Washington to help land a job that she loves.
“I really like what I’m doing. I’m excited about it,” Malouf said. “I’m pretty lucky to have found that.”