A Day in the Life...
We believe strongly in our approach to research at McMurry. We see research as not being the “other” thing professors do after they have completed their teaching for the week; we see research as a great teaching tool for the average student. For instance, in Microbiology this semester the final project students are doing is determining whether their cell phones put out sufficient radiation to mutate the Staphylococci they isolated and identified from their bathrooms during project two. By doing this, they are learning literature searches, experimental design, development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria through random mutations (or in this case radiation-induced mutations), and scientific writing. All good skills we would have expected from our capstone students (well, the mutagenesis probably would’ve been some other investigation). Here, they are doing these things as sophomores. Similar approaches to research as a teaching tool are seen in many other BIMS courses, starting with their yeast fermentation experiments in their first semester General Biology I course.
But beyond research in regular lab courses, we also expect every student to have a capstone project involving research or internship. Research project currently in progress include the following:
- Studying the metagenomics of populations arising in Winogradsky columns vs. those of populations arising in Benoit columns (our Dr. Benoit has developed an alternative formulation for Winogradsky columns that uses diatomaceous earth instead of actual water source sediment as the basis for the solid phase of the column – see prior posts for more on this!). We are determining whether the Benoit column develops similar population profiles as those arising using actual sediment.
- Studying the presence of Coronaviruses in bat populations. Bat guano is collected and screened using genomic tools. Methodology began with samples recovered from museum specimens and has progressed to catching bats in the field and obtaining fresh samples.
- Studying the genomics of moles from museums around the nation to determine the biogeography and distribution of unique populations. Discovery of the westernmost specimens in Texas by one of our professors has led to this study to figure out which eastern population was the source so that a migration map can be constructed.
- Recovery of antimicrobial and anti-cancer chemicals from regional plants. Samples are obtained, studied chemically and physiologically for antibacterial properties on the McMurry campus. Collaborations between our faculty and those at other universities (University of San Francisco, Baylor University, and University of Pennsylvania) allow more advanced chemical analysis and anti-cancer screening assays.
- Studying the migration of crabs from coastal areas to inland lakes in Texas. Lots of time is spent sampling regional lakes for the presence of these invasive species to determine routes and methods they use for finding new freshwater habitats. A parallel study to this is the attempt to breed the crabs in captivity, something that has never been successfully done.
Is this it? Is this all our students have to choose from? Nope. This is simply the projects currently underway. We hope others will join our Research Teams and find their own, unique project from these and other options available at McMurry
In BIMS, we believe a student “gets it” more quickly when the topics covered in lab are intertwined and connected – not when they follow the disjointed and unrelated approach seen at most colleges and universities. For that reason, we are teaching our Gen Bio I lab through student participation in four major projects. We believe we can give students a good look at the various topics central a first semester freshman biology course through Winogradsky columns (their “pets”), experiments with the fungus Pilobolus, photosynthesis with alginate balls containing the alga Chlorella, and fermentation experiments using the yeast Saccharomyces.
Pilobolus is a fungus that grows on the dung of herbivorous animals. It is sometimes called the “shotgun fungus” or “dung cannon” because of its means for dispersing spores. Its life cycle includes production of spores that shoot out from the fungal colony to land on nearby grasses. When a herbivore eats those grasses, the fungus germinates and grows in the animal waste where it produces more spores to shoot out and start the cycle over again. The key to success for the fungus is a light-sensitive structure that helps aim the spores away from surrounding dung toward an open area where new grass can be found.
The question our students have been asked to determine is whether it is possible to improve the accuracy of the fungus by natural selection. Cultures are grown in a closed container with a hole provided for light to pass through. Our students are placing sterile coverslips over the holes to catch any spores that are accurately shot at the light. Those inaccurate spores hit and stick to the other parts of the container. So each group will create one of these chambers and after two weeks will take photos of the inside of the chamber to document where spores hit (the scatter pattern). Then, the cover slips are removed and used to inoculate new plates of media. The experiment is repeated with new chambers to see if spore accuracy is improved by using spores that were accurate the first time. If the spores hitting the coverslip give rise to fungal colonies with more accurate spores, the scatter pattern for the second test should be much smaller and more concentrated than before.
What are we learning? Phototropism, some mycology, cell biology, cultivation techniques, experimental design, data analysis, and much more. Will this work? We’ll let you know in a few weeks!
May brings finals, graduation, and a lull in campus activity. However, summer is anything but a quiet time in the Department of Biology. Here are some of the things happening as we hit the mid-point of summer vacation.
1. SOAR registration. It has been a very good summer for the BIMS program as we look at the number and quality of new students being added to our program. Freshmen are being added as they register during the Summer Orientation and Registration (SOAR) activities. Students from large cities and small towns are choosing to call McMurry their college home. Among them are young men and women interested in a variety of medical fields, forensic science, and biomedical research. Another SOAR is coming up at the end of the month, and the capacity has already been expanded to allow us to handle the growing interest being shown for McMurry’s science programs.
2. Faculty news. Dr. Tom Benoit had an article published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education on a new formulation for creating Winogradsky columns (the “pets” our BIOL 1301 Unicellular Biology students regularly make). This new approach has been adopted by teaching and research labs around the nation. Dr. Dana Lee has a new research article in the Journal of Mammalogy. Dr. Lee used molecular techniques to study the genomics of bats from a number of small colonies scattered among the Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas to determine the connectedness between the populations. This summer, her husband was awarded his PhD from Oklahoma State University, meaning there are two PhDs in the home. A third publication from our faculty is also coming. Dr. Anna will have an article in this fall’s Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. It explores the geographical distribution and history of plants from southwest Texas. Drs. Boyle and Brant have been working to get our new biological research station (Firebase Libby) ready for our students and courses.
3. Student news. Kara Black, recent graduate, has received an invitation to join the incoming class at the UNT-HSC Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Ft. Worth. This was her chosen program. Three BIMS majors are working in research with the Department of Chemistry this summer. They are being paid through the Welch Foundation Departmental Grant. Greg Aiken, Dialfin Hammond, and Genna Hart are all working with Chemistry faculty on ongoing research projects. Also, Sophie Southwell is this summer’s Beasley Research Fellowship recipient. She is working with Dr. Lee on an interesting project using molecular tools to study the prevalence of coronaviruses in bats.
4. New programs. We are ready to go on our new biology degree programs. BS Biology, BS Biomedical Science, and BS Life Sciences all are new for 2015. You can see the details by visiting Biology’s new and improved webpage.
Enjoy your summer and looking forward to seeing everyone in lat August!