For the past decade, one of the most popular television franchises has been CSI, where the tools of forensic science are used to solve crime. The BIMS program was created to provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to join their TV counterparts to help bring criminals to justice.
But forensic science is MUCH more than DNA fingerprinting and other biotech and immunological methods. Sometimes, the key evidence is provided by six-legged pests. This semester, upper level students in Dr. Tierney Brosius’ Entomology class and two capstone students are joining scientists from universities across the country in a project being directed by the University of Nebraska to study chemical attractants that draw flies to decaying flesh and to see what species are most commonly attracted by which chemical.
To do their work, students will create bait traps containing suspect chemicals and scatter them around campus. Then, over the course of many days the flies attracted will be counted and identified to search for patterns and answers. Results will be added to those from students from other schools to see whether there are regional differences in effective chemicals and in species attracted.
More than anything, such studies provide students with valuable experience participating in the industry of science. But another benefit is the realization that the glamour and simplicity of television science and technology come about through long, hard work done by dedicated researchers.
Every year the BIMS faculty sits down and discusses what research they might pursue for the sake of teaching and capstone projects. With the start of school only a week away, we have narrowed our focus to a couple of very promising avenues for student research. We thought you might like to know what’s made it to the top of our list for possible projects…
1. Bioactive compounds in the environment. Last year we began work to gear up use of the yeast estrogen screening (YES) assay to test soils and waters for the presence of estrogen-mimic compounds. Such compounds have been implicated in estrogen-fueled cancers, early onset of puberty, and other such health issues. Our early discussions this year have included involvement of Biochemistry in the use of the screen for testing area ground water and soils while Biology capstone students (BIMS 4201) may pursue use of biofermenters to produce mixed populations of microbes capable of destroying the chemicals. So, using our resources to identify the problem and find solutions. I like that!
2. Spore physiology and ecology. During my doctoral research, I made some discoveries that have gone unreported and have not been pursued since. My work was on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium of economic importance because of the insecticidal crystal protein produced when it forms spores. Unlike the rest of the Bt world at the time, my interest was not in the crystal but in the biology of the spore. A part of that work involved studying, essentially, how diet influenced spore properties. I found those spores created in high sugar environments were larger and more resistant to heat, UV, and harsh chemicals, and germinated differently than did spores created in low sugar environments. I am teaching an Advanced Microbiology course (BIMS 4491) this fall where the students will resume the research with our goal to present results at the Texas Branch ASM meetings in March and to publish our results before the end of the year. Students leaving McMurry with presentations and publications is a good thing! Because the work is so expansive and offers so many opportunities for students to jump on-board, other students doing capstones may also find a piece of this puzzle they want to pursue. This research teaches some great basic biology and microbiology and has tremendous biomedical importance – after all, Bt is the simulant used for research on anthrax!
Some might look at the type of work our students pursue at McMurry and determine that the research done here is not as “cutting edge” and sophisticated as that done at large universities. Rightly so, and without apologies! Our intent is not to invite undergraduates to wash dishes or “piddle around” on the fringes of our research, but to be the main contributors to our work – much as graduate students are at those large universities. Every student is exposed to research here, and they are integral to our progress – not footnotes to graduate students’ success! Their work is the main course, the entree and not the parsley and onion soup. The fact of the matter is there are always plenty of questions of interest and importance to be answered that are left behind as the juggernaut of big science crashes forward. We will gladly fill in the blanks left behind as they rush onward. Such questions provide a fertile ground for learning and discovery. We are student-centered in our teaching and in our research. BIMS at McMurry is simply “science done better”.
We had another BUSY week in Biomedical Science courses.
- Freshman-level BIMS 1300 Intro to Scientific Research students learned how to use their Tablet PCs to gather data from a “Brain Test” all students took (determined analytical vs. creative, auditory vs. visual) and calculate standard error of the mean, as well as linear regression analysis of data sets. In the lab, students finished up their observation projects that will be presented in the coming week.
- The new microbiology course for allied health majors, BIOL 3403 Fundamentals of Microbiology participated in a webinar hosted by McMurry alumna Mary Lynn Smith (’83) on biofilms in healthcare. This was an example of how experts and professionals a thousand miles away can contribute to our students’ education.
- In BIOL 3410 Microbiology, students finished the identification of Gram positive bacteria found in their cars. They are working on research posters describing their studies and will turn those in next week. In short, they took samples from the HVAC and interior surfaces of their cars, isolated and purified bacteria, and pursued identifications of the Gram positive cocci found using conventional tests and the BD-BBL Crystal(TM) Rapid ID panels. Follow-up tests included testing for oxacillin-resistance, an indicator of community-borne MRSA.
- In BIMS 4391 Advanced Microbiology, students moved forward in their development of antibiotic-producing bacteria. They completed the identification of their endospore-formers using microscopy, conventional tests, and BD-BBL Crystal(TM) Rapid ID panels. Then, they grew their bacterium in batch culture, removed the cells and spores by centrifugation and filtration, and challenged six microbes (two Gram negative rods, two Gram positive cocci, two yeasts) with the filtrate in disk diffusion tests. Those antibiotic producers with the most promise will be grown in our new benchtop fermenters and their products characterized by chemical, physical, and physiological means to learn more.
- In our BIMS 4201 Capstone Research class, senior students began cultivating the Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain genetically-modified with human estrogen receptor as a prelude to the use of the YES assay for monitoring the presence of estrogen-mimics in the environment.
All this may sound way beyond the reach of normal college students in normal college classes. Not so! We find that students are more engaged in learning techniques and information when there’s a reason or goal – a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! It is at the heart of the skills-laden, research-rich approach taken in teaching BIMS courses.