BIMS 1300 is a bit of an unusual course to start the BIMS major out on. The title is “Introduction to Scientific Research”, and yet we spend the majority of our time playing and designing games, with only limited time spent discussing the scientific method, the structure of a scientific paper, and the importance of ethical and moral behavior in the sciences. So it might come as a shock that one of the key features of the final exam is the analysis of a scientific paper taken from the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.
All semester long, I have been telling the 33 students in the class (mostly freshmen) that our approach to learning how scientific research is conducted is taken from “The Karate Kid” – we do things seemingly unrelated to science to learn about science. So we played games to learn about variable and constants, how to use deductive reasoning to isolate variables in order to win the game. The mid-term exam included a simple Sudoku! We read excerpts from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” to learn about observation and controlled experimental design. I give them an article called “Delusions of Gender” that is a great example of how inductive reasoning can go awry if taken beyond the limits of logic. We ran through examples of research misconduct and discussed the high costs of research and played “The Lab” at the NIH-ORI website.
And their final exam included evaluation of a scientific paper. They told me which paragraphs fit into each part of an IMRAD format paper. They evaluated logic used in the Results and Discussion section. They identified variables and constants in the table and figure. Then, on page two of the exam they looked at a flawed study, pointed out the mistakes and designed a better approach. And they explained how the games their groups created use these same methods and approaches and skills.
How did they do? As students in the course have done over the past four years, they were able to show me they “get it” about how we use the tools of science on a daily basis as we go about our decision-filled lives. And I am certain the experience of this class will help our students approach their sophomore classes, including organic chemistry, genetics, and human physiology from a more critical and thoughtful perspective.
In Micro, we teach techniques through student projects. Early in the semester we studied Gram negative rods from foods to learn the basics of aseptic technique, pipetting and viable counts via pour plates, staining, microscopy, selective media, bacterial testing and identification, etc. Our most recent project needed to center on Gram positive cocci, so our four groups in lab chose where to do their sampling. We stayed away from places dangerous bacteria might be easily encountered, and then we sampled like crazy to see what we might recover and identify. Whether credit cards or cell phones or feet or fingertips, the groups all found Gram positive cocci and began their characterization. The result was nearly 40 unique isolates for us to investigate.
Identifying bacteria can be a long, laborious and expensive process. My students do some basic tests to get a feel for how the process is done. But we never go test-by-test, day-by-day to definitively identify our isolates. Instead, we use BD-BBL Crystal (R) Rapid ID panels. Students inoculate the panels with their culture, snap them closed, and then toss them in the incubator overnight. For Gram positive cocci, we use the GP panels, good for a wide range of cocci and bacilli. Each panel is designed to give answers for 30 separate tests useful for identification. We have manual readers that students can use to interpret test results (based on color charts provided). But when we renovated labs a few years back we built into the budget an automated panel reader that interfaces with a computer and provides two important functions: reading all 30 tests and interpreting their results to generate an identification. It was well worth the expense.
Today I came in and read results for over 1000 biochemical tests and identified over 30 bacteria in less than half an hour. When my students come in Tuesday, they will be able to add that information to their lab reports (research posters) and analyze that information to complete their posters. Sure beats having to make the media for those tests and wash the sterilized remnants later!
Recently, three BIMS majors found out they will receive Bloomer and Beasley Research Fellowships for the coming year. All three are students of Dr. Gary Wilson and will be pursuing different projects investigating Bacillus thuringiensis spore properties as they pursue Honors research and write their Honors theses in the next year.
The Charles and Lisa Bloomer Research Fellowship is awarded to support research of promising students in the School of Natural and Computational Science (SNCS). This initiative of the Science and Math Advisory Board (SMAB) provides a research stipend for students as they work closely with McMurry faculty on a research project. Dr. Bloomer is a successful oral surgeon in Abilene who has generously and regularly supported the sciences at his alma mater. The biennial picnic the Bloomers host for SMAB members and SNCS faculty is a popular event building relationships and communicating the vision each holds for McMurry’s science future. The Beasley Research Fellowship is a new program supporting student research in the biological sciences. McMurry’s science alumni are spearheading an effort to create an endowment in memory of Dr. Clark Beasley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus from the Department of Biology who died this past summer. This represents the first year this fellowship has been awarded.
Recipients of this year’s awards are Heather Rawls, Miranda Nguyen, and Nicole McGunegle. Their projects will study wild type and genetically-engineered strains of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and Bacillus cereus (Bc) grown in rich and poor media. Bt is a spore-former that produces an insecticidal toxin at the time of sporulation. Bc is a commonly encountered and well-studied spore-former closely related to Bt but generally harmless. The genetically-engineered strains include Bt strains that do not form crystals and Bc strains that have been engineered to produce Bt crystals. One project will look at how the presence or absence of the crystal in rich and poor media influences spore and crystal size and toxicity. A second project will look at how growth conditions impact spore dormancy and the process of activation and germination. It is possible an undiscovered variation of quorum sensing might be involved. The third project will explore UV and chemical resistance of wild type and genetically-engineered strains produced in rich and poor media. All projects fit the criteria for BIMS research: a complete project doable in a short time frame, certain discovery no matter the experimental outcome, publishable work.
Stay tuned for updates on how this work is progressing!