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Erin Muller has been watching squiggly little parasites in the lens of her microscope for at least seven months.

Through her studies, the Lafayette College senior is helping to find basic information on the biology of the flatworm called Schistosoma mansoni. That parasite, transferred to humans by water, causes the disease schistosomiasis which affects the livers of an estimated 200 million people in Africa, India, the Far East and South America.

Her study brought the straight A student national recognition recently. She was selected as one of the top100 students in the United States by USA Today.

She and 99 other students were cited for helping to make a difference in the world through their academic achievements and leadership roles on and off campus.

Muller wears her mantle of excellence gracefully. But she admits she has to work hard for her academic honors. Those A’s, which she has had throughout college, did not come easily, despite the fact that she was valedictorian in her high school in Riverton, Conn.

Last semester, she averaged 15 hours a week in her laboratory work, all while taking four courses.

What sets Muller apart is her motivation and her skill in organizing her time. ”When I have an hour here and an hour there, I use it to do homework or study,” she said.

”I’m not the kind of student who can study the night before. I need to prepare over a period of time, and I try to make the most of my time.”

Muller did a workshop at college on time management. One of her key points was that if you have 20 minutes between meetings, you can use it to get your homework done instead of snacking or socializing.

Another secret is that she plans ahead ”big time.” ”I write everything down, month by month,” she said.

But she does not forsake a social life. ”I make sure I have time for myself and my boyfriend on weekends,” she said.

Her department honors thesis, whose outline helped bring her the honorable mention in USA Today, centers on her studies of the parasite.

Muller did preliminary work learning about the biochemical effect of the disease during her interim break

in January 1999.

When fall classes began, she was encouraged by Bernard Fried, Lafayette’s Kreider professor of biology, and Joseph A. Sherma, the college’s Larkin professor of chemistry, to continue her research of the role of lipids, or fats, in mice infected with Schistosoma mansoni.

Muller used her fall break to travel to England to talk with Laura Rosa-Brunet, a 1991 Lafayette graduate doing postdoctoral work on the parasite at Cambridge University.

”Because the parasite is so infectious, we don’t work to maintain it here,” Muller said. ”So Rosa-Brunet did all the infections in England and sent me the samples to analyze.

”I learned from her how she maintains the parasite, how she infects the mice. When I was there, she did an autopsy on the mice, and I could see the enlarged liver and the worms.”

Muller used chromatography to analyze the fat content. The method separates compounds from each other, she said. She was separating different types of lipids, or fats. She used high-performance, thin-layer chromatography to analyze the difference in lipid concentrations in infected and uninfected samples.

Schistosoma mansoni, which comes from infected snails in the water, enters the bloodstream and then the liver and intestinal tract, causing serious disease. Because it breeds constantly, it destroys certain vital internal organs.

”By identifying lipids and how the liver becomes fatty and the fatty degeneration which is the consequence of the parasite, Erin is helping us to understand the disease and work toward a solution,” Fried said.

Muller has won high praise from her professors. Fried said she would be in the first percentile. If he had to group her, he said, she would be among the top 10 students he has had in 37 years of teaching.

”She is intuitive, meticulous and organized,” he said, noting she has published with her two professors about six articles for professional journals.

Muller will present her thesis to her department and then to the National Conference of Undergraduate Research on April 27 at the University of Montana.

She credits her parents with the encouragement to study they have given her and sister Sarah, 20, an outstanding student in biology at the University of Richmond, Va.

”All they ever asked of us was to do our best,” Muller said. ”If we got D’s they would still be proud of us.”

A Marquis Scholar at Lafayette, she said she has always wanted to do her best because ”education is so expensive, and many people don’t have the opportunity I’ve had.”

When she graduates in May, she will work at Merck Research Laboratories, West Point, Montgomery County, in its cell culture development area.

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