How does a budding scientist interest her whole school in the complicated process of genome sequencing?
Well, by analyzing the DNA of said university's beloved mascot, of course.
Maya Evanitsky, 21, a student at Pennsylvania State University's Schreyer Honors College, hopes to soon tell all of Happy Valley exactly what a Nittany Lion is made of.
She has extracted a sample from the hind leg of the taxidermied 19th century Puma concolor on display at the university's All-Sports Museum at Beaver Stadium. It's believed to be the most complete specimen of an eastern mountain lion of the sort that used to live in Pennsylvania.
"It was intimidating," said the biochemistry and molecular biology major from Butler County, Pa. "It's so old, and it's such a valuable specimen."
She said she hopes her research will help conserve mountain lions in other parts of the country and help locally if the lion ever makes its way back to the state.
"We could learn a lot from this," she said.
DNA analysis of college mascots appears to be on the upswing.
At the University of California, Santa Cruz, people are studying the banana slug - the small, slimy, yellow mollusk is the school mascot. Meanwhile, students and professors at the University of Maryland are delving into the DNA of their diamondback terrapin.
"This is a great way to connect science and the research capabilities of the university with students and alumni," said George Perry, assistant professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State and Evanitsky's adviser on the project. "It's something that people can get behind and get excited about."
Penn State adopted the Nittany Lion as mascot in 1904 at a baseball game against Princeton, which lorded its fierce Bengal tiger. Student Harrison D. "Joe" Mason "replied with an instant fabrication of the Nittany Lion, 'fiercest beast of them all,' who could overcome even the tiger," according to a university website. Penn State beat Princeton, and an affably costumed lion has been a fixture at games ever since.
The mountain lion on display at the sports museum is older than that.
The tan cat, standing taut on a bed of leaves (that are from the 1800s and were preserved with arsenic), has had a checkered history since it was shot and killed by Susquehanna County farmer Samuel E. Brush in 1856. Brush stuffed his quarry and let his grandchildren play with it for years before donating it to Penn State, which put it on display at Old Main.
The lion made an appearance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was lent to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, then was left in storage for decades before being rediscovered by a Penn State professor in 1992.
The university had the lion restored and put it on display at Pattee Library in 1996. It migrated to the museum in 2011.
Evanitsky needed permission to take a sample. She wore a lab coat, mask, and gloves to prevent her own DNA from contaminating the specimen.
"Ancient DNA is incredibly fragile, because it's been exposed to the environment so long," she said.
The extraction in mid-April felt like cutting carpet, she said - "very tough, like leathery."
She will also sample preserved mountain lions housed at Albright College in Reading and a Williamsport museum during the next month. A couple also have offered to allow her to sample their lion on display at Bald Eagle State Park.
"The more samples we get, the better our results will end up," she said.
A Penn State lab will perform the sequencing, which will likely happen over the summer. "Then the real fun begins with the mountains of data to analyze," said Evanitsky, who wants to learn how the eastern mountain lion is different from those found in Florida and the West.
Evanitsky raised more than $12,000 for her research through crowdfunding, drawing 144 donations including two from mountain lion conservation foundations.
She envisions a career in biomedical research and expects to continue her DNA investigation through the fall. Evanitsky said she hadn't considered a career in science until 10th grade, when she took chemistry.
"I didn't really think of women in science being a thing," she said.