In BIMS 1101 Unicellular Organisms Lab, Dr. Benoit takes students through an amazing tour of the unseen world, one filled with bacteria and protozoa and algae and yeast. The course teaches basic cell biology and the diversity that exists among the smallest forms of life. As a way of demonstrating the metabolic diversity of bacteria, all students create Winogradsky columns by filling Falcon flasks with diatomaceous earth, a variety of chemicals, and some water drawn from pond sludge (see photo). These are the students’ pets, cared for and tended to by the students. Dr. B encourages students to drop by the lab regularly to visit their pets and to enjoy their journey to maturation. At the end of the semester, students are free to take them home where they can continue to mature and change for many years.
The preparation begins white usually, but chemical changes caused by a variety of bacterial turn the many minerals present into a technicolor show. A good balance of chemicals and diversity of bacteria can result in reds and greens and blacks and yellows and purples as one species of bacteria after another transforms the minerals into colorful compounds. It is the microbial equivalent of a garden filled with diverse plants.
As educational as the Winogradsky column is, the fun take on the project by Dr. Benoit demonstrates an important component of science at McMurry – if it isn’t fun, something is wrong!
Drs. Benoit and Wilson have long had a love affair with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spores and their study. Their many papers on the subject have often centered on a germination assay that follows the conversion of dormant and resistant spores back to vegetative growth. The assay is based on watching a change in the optical density (absorbance) of spores using a spectrophotometer. It is fast and easy and dependable. At least it was until about 12 years ago when that assay, for some reason, stopped working.
The first indication something was wrong came in the form of an email from a researcher in New Zealand in the fall of 2001. The graduate student was studying Bt germination and ran into difficulty replicating the results Wilson and Benoit had reported. The email simply asked Dr. Wilson whether there were any special tricks involved in the assay. Since neither Wilson or Benoit was involved in research due to administrative responsibilities at the time and had not experienced similar problems, they had no advice to offer.
Fast forward a few years to the creation of the BIMS program and a new graduation requirement that every student must participate in capstone research, an Honors project, or an internship. The department needed research ideas, and Benoit and Wilson resurrected the germination assay as a means to engage students in studying new aspects of spores physiology. The number of unique projects this system would provide for future students was enormous. But the assay failed to work. Even with new facilities and new resources to support research, several student projects failed to recreate results from earlier papers. Nothing in the literature and no one in the field had an answer.
This summer, Honors student Heather Rawls became the most recent student to attempt the assay. Through the summer she tried differences in media, growth temperature, ways of collecting and processing spores, water quality being used, activation techniques, a variety of germinants, and at least five different spectrophotometers with no predictability or consistency in the results. If anything, fewer and fewer spores were germinating with each attempt.
In August, Heather and Dr. Wilson had a research pow wow and developed an alternate project for her Honors thesis. Time was running out to complete her research before starting the writing, and moving to something with a higher probability for success was needed. But Heather wasn’t ready to give up that easily. At an impromptu meeting a couple of weeks ago, a new thought emerged when it seemed every variable possible already had been tested. Glassware! In their graduate programs and during their prior research using the assay, Benoit and Wilson always collected the spores in glass containers and the germinants and all other chemicals used had been stored in glass containers. In our growing emphasis on research, McMurry had improved the funding of science programs so much that the use of disposable plastics was now the norm. Maybe the plastic centrifuge tubes used to collect spores and store germinants were coated with something inhibiting spore germination? Maybe some chemical was leaching out of the plastic?
Over the last two weeks, Heather switched to glassware for collecting spores and making reagents. Her results were dramatically different. We now are certain plasticware has an inhibitory effect on germination. A decade of frustration was caused by our affluence and the use of disposable labware rather than old-school glass.
With a working assay, Heather will turn back to the project she intended to complete this summer looking at the germination of a variety of genetically-engineered and wildtype strains of Bacilli. Another Honors student just beginning her work will investigate what the mystery chemical from the plastics might be and how it inhibits germination, or the range of spore-forming species affected. One mystery is solved, more are uncovered…
BIMS Honors students prove to us on a daily basis that they are among the best thinkers and hardest workers on campus. This commitment to uncovering the truth is what will drive them to become leaders in biomedical science and healthcare provision in the future.
It is a common misconception that those who teach have a summer of rest and leisure. Anyone who has taught knows that is not close to true for many. Rather, summers are times for exploration and experimentation to update and improve courses. It is when new things have to be tried out before decisions on fall orders are made. It is a time when upgrades to the curriculum are made.
With that in mind, I want to report on some of the things we are looking forward to for the fall in the Biomedical Science program.
- Summer research. One thing that moves on during summers is research, something difficult to do along with other responsibilities during the school year. The photo accompanying this post is of Heather Rawls, the first Beasley Summer Research Scholar, who has been in the lab all summer working on her Honors research project. She is not alone, as Kendra Williams also worked on her Honors research involving molecular biology this summer and Bradley Rowland continued his research internship on nanoparticles and drug delivery at the TTU School of Pharmacy. Heather’s work, centered on germination of Bacillus thuringiensis spores, has given her greater insight into the frustrations and exhilaration that define research. They, and three other BIMS students, will participate in Honors research this fall and spring.
- Medical Terminology courses. I know this is not exactly new, but it is certainly fairly new. Dr. Sharp has worked out the kinks to providing online beginning and advanced courses in medical terminology.
- Online Microbiology. Drs. Wilson and Benoit spent sabbaticals last year developing online microbiology labs and lectures for allied health majors. Though the courses will not be available until 2014, much of the ground work is done and is being tested and finalized with classes this year. This initiative is in response to mandates in some states that all components of pre-nursing programs be delivered online for convenience and cost-savings. For a sneak-peak, visit www.micro-online-complete.com.
- Food Microbiology. Dr. Wilson is offering an advanced microbiology course this year over food microbiology. Students will make foods with microbes, test foods, preserve foods, and investigate means for creating safe kitchens. A guide to safe kitchen practices for college students will be the final product of the class.
- Pre-Health Professions preparation. Based on the success of our freshman-/sophomore-level Pre-Professional (PREP) seminar, we have decided to develop a follow-up course focusing on admissions test preparation, application completion, shadowing experiences, and additional interview preparation. Our goal is to improve MCAT, DAT, PCAT, GRE, etc. scores, to further polish application essays, and to build confidence in interview skills for our students. Armed with a new endowed fund for supporting PREP activities, additional enrichment activities such as trips to visit medical and other professional schools, and the like.
- Certificate in Pre-Health Professions Studies. One idea gaining strong interest is the creation of a co-curricular certificate for students who pursue courses and experiences outlined in a pre-health professions certification program. Early ideas on this include courses in medical ethics, mental health, wellness, and the usual prescribed courses for pre-health programs… sort of a body, mind, spirit approach preparing students for the profession of meeting healthcare needs of the next generation. More on this as we better define the program.
So, it is clear we have not been sitting on the beach this summer. Much is afoot for BIMS!