Students in my Microbiology class this fall have a treat in store. Instead of disconnected labs to teach the main principles of aseptic technique and identifying bacteria, students in this course are going to learn by doing research. I have planned five research projects the student research teams will undertake: conducting an air quality survey of campus buildings, screen fresh vegetables and fruits for E. coli, search for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on campus, isolate endospore-formers and their bacteriophage from nature, and have groups design and conduct a research study of their own using the knowledge and skills learned.
One of these represents a first for our students – the MRSA study. Our plan is to obtain nasal swabs from around 100 students on campus and compare the frequency of Staphylococcus aureus (SA) and MRSA among groups and with previous reports nationally. Student research groups will collect nasal swabs and screen for SA and MRSA, identifying the most interesting isolates using our BD Crystal(TM) Rapid ID system. They will analyze the data from a survey of participants and the results from the lab to see if on-campus residents differ in SA/MRSA occurence from off-campus residents, athletes vs. non-athletes, etc. The results should be interesting!
Because we will be doing research involving human subjects, special approval is required from the campus oversight group: the Institutional Review Board, or IRB. Their job is to review proposed campus research to make sure it is ethical, responsible, and conforms to national standards for acceptable scientific research. It is a first for me, since my lab research is typically environmentally-focused (bacteria don’t have to give informed consent!). The “homework” required for the IRB is extensive – several federal reports and statutes to review, an online course through NIH for certification of training (yes, I missed a question!), and then a form that asks all the hard questions needed to insure the research is well-thought, useful, and safe for all. Reading the prescribed materials, thinking through how the project was structured in light of the training, going through the NIH course, and filling out the form took me the better part of three days.
This bunny trail has been educational and informative, so much so that I’ll have all the Microbiology students go through the online training before they start the study in late September. To know the trouble our scientific community goes through to protect the rights and dignity of its individuals is eye-opening and reassuring. Sometimes things of great educational benefit are not on the main thoroughfares of our courses. Oh, and ask those college sophomores you know whether they’ve done anything as exciting as this in their science classes!