When Serena Ding, ’11, thinks of SpongeBob SquarePants, she does not think of the television show.

For more than three years, Ding has worked in the sponge lab with Dr. April Hill, studying and researching animal evolutionary development, using sponges as a model organism. SpongeBob is the lab’s mascot.

“We use a sponge because it is at the very base of the animal tree of life,” Ding said. “All animals come from one branch, and the sponge is very near the base of that branch. By looking at a very primitive organism, you can try to see how animals evolve over time — it provides a very good baseline for this evolution within the animal kingdom.”

Ding will graduate with a double major in biology and economics. Her parents, who live in China, both work in the biology field — which provided an early scientific influence on Ding.

As for her economics major, that was an interest Ding discovered after coming to Richmond. She said she found studying economics incredibly fascinating — with similarities to studying biology — and credits much of her interest to Dr. Dean D. Croushore.

“There aren’t too many connections between the majors, but the field of economics that I really like to work in is macro-economics data-analysis,” Ding said. “When you’re looking at data collected by all these bureaus, you start thinking about factors that influence the data, and also the way they’re sampling.

“It’s the same approach that you use when you collect biological data. That’s one connection that came to me as I was studying both subjects.”

Ding first noticed Richmond while flipping through a catalog, and again when glancing at a friend’s list of potential colleges. Being on international status, Ding’s attraction to Richmond was the funding the school has for international students.

She said that Richmond is one of the few schools that can provide up to full funding for international students.

When Ding came to campus for a scholarship interview, her host student worked in the sponge lab where Ding has worked for the past four years. She also met her future advisor, Dr. April Hill, and attended one of Hill’s classes. Ding said that experience really drew her to the school and to her lab.

“I specifically study two genes called PaxB and Six1/2 that are involved in a network of more complex animals,” Ding said. “The genes regulate eye development as well as neural and muscle development. They are found in all animals, but not in anything that is not an animal.”

During her career at Richmond, Ding studied abroad in Denmark and received the prestigious John Neasmith Dickinson Memorial Research Award. Her next four years, which she will spend at the University of Oxford in England, will be no exception to the past four.

Ding’s program at Oxford is a four-year PhD program focusing on chromosomal and developmental biology. She will spend the first year taking classes and doing rotations with different professors, and by the end of the first year she will commit to a lab where she will work for the next three years.

Ding is excited about going abroad next year, but she always wants to clear up a myth about going abroad at Richmond if you’re a science major.

“I try to tell everyone this — I know a lot of people say ‘I can’t study abroad because I’m a science major,’” Ding said. “It’s completely not true. I didn’t even plan ahead on studying abroad [in Denmark]; it just came to me one day.

“Fall semester junior year, all my friends were abroad. You can take your science classes abroad, and if you take enough classes during other semesters you can maybe not even take any classes in the field while abroad.”