CALS Academic Achievement Awardee Sean Prell encourages peers to keep learning, build relationships

Sean Prell wearing a white lab coat, standing in front of a white board with various things written on it.
Sean Prell's next adventure after graduating this semester will be attending Harvard Medical School in the fall.

By Ann Y. Robinson

Sean Prell planned to become a vet, but soon after entering college, he realized he was too soft-hearted to euthanize dogs as part of his occupation. So he decided to pursue microbiology. Over time, he fell in love with chemistry and genetics, and added them to his roster of majors.

“It took me awhile to settle on something. I tend to get bored easily, so I like to keep learning,” said Prell, the recipient of the 2024 Academic Achievement Award from Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Student Council. As he prepares to graduate, he continues to be open to new ideas about his future as he heads to a lab at Harvard Medical School this fall.

“I am excited about my next steps, which include applying to medical school! But I am keeping my options open while I decide between a MD-PhD research track or the more patient-centered MD clinical track.  I love research, but I want a future career where I can work with people.”

Prell’s list of people he has especially appreciated during his time at Iowa State includes Qijing Zhang, Distinguished Professor in Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine and the Dr. Roger and Marilyn Mahr Chair in One Health, whose lab he has been working in for the last couple of years. “Dr. Zhang and the rest of his lab have been so fantastic,” Prell said.

For his part, Zhang considers Prell a “rising star.”

“Sean makes Iowa State proud! He has made some significant contributions to projects in our laboratory, which have resulted in a couple of pending publications for which he will be included as a co-author,” Zhang said. “He is very talented, self-motivated, and goal-oriented. He is also a hard worker and gets along well with people.”

Even while working and excelling in three majors with a nearly perfect grade point average, Prell has been active in campus and community life. He served on the CALS Student Council and worked with Food at First to help provide meals to low-income Ames residents. He regularly volunteers at Mary Greeley Medical Center with tasks like welcoming and assisting arrivals to the Intensive Care Unit.

One of his favorite activities has been involvement in the Microbiology Club. Prell served as its vice-president and president and coordinated a fall workshop for high school students. “It was fun, and most of the students really seemed to like it,” he said.

Animal science and microbiology Professor Joan Cunnick, a faculty advisor for the club, has been an important mentor for Prell. She praised his efforts to re-energize interest in the group, which had lagged during the pandemic. “The significant increase in participation was largely due to Sean’s leadership skills, combined with his outgoing and inclusive communication style,” she said. “He brings such enthusiasm to his work, outreach and research. Sean has more than a ‘can do’ attitude, he is an example of ‘I am doing it, and I will do it’ for myself and to better my community.”

Such characteristics have earned Prell a long list of recognitions and scholarships at Iowa State. The Cardinal Key Scholar has been a recipient of the Fred Foreman Scholarship for Growth in Leadership Participation and the Alan Burnham Undergraduate Research Scholarship in the Department of Chemistry. Prell particularly valued awards from CALS and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to support internships, which allowed him to spend last summer at Stanford University researching heart development. The year before, he interned at the pharmaceutical firm Merck, in Boston, where he developed a novel synthesis method for medicinally important compounds.

As he prepares to return to the Boston area, the young scientist urges his peers and upcoming students to “take time to have fun and build relationships. Find a good balance, but don’t just work all the time. You need a supportive network around you, especially for the times when things aren’t going so great.”

“And another thing,” he said. “Don’t stress too much about figuring it all out right away. Learning what sparks your interests as you go is an important part of the process.”