Our second guiding principle is really simple: ”Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”. We believe it is important to teach our students to dream big but to dream with an ethical and moral anchor. With every big dream should come the question “Why are we doing this?”, and if we cannot answer that with something honorable and true and right, then we should consider why it should be done at all. Let our conscience guide our decision-making, rather than checking that at the door to our laboratories! This same ethical and moral gut-check goes for our career guidance, our course advising, and our options for capstone research. Every car needs an accelerator to move forward and accomplish amazing things. But it also needs a brake pedal and a steering wheel to turn that movement into productive action.
An example of how “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” works can be seen in some recent capstone projects. In recent years we have implemented systems for testing environmental estrogen-like compounds, germination assays for bacterial spores, and fermentation physiology for beer production. In each case, the project was tailored to the skills and abilities and career goals of the student. In each case we had to scale back the scope of the project to help students find success in the limited amount of time available. One recent group of students in Advanced Microbiology was studying resistance and germination of various mutant strains of Bacillus thuringiensis and Bacillus cereus. As the students in the course brainstormed about directions this could take, we continually brought the discussion back to manageable parameters with the phrase, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”. We ended up with a limited project that could be completed in one semester and which resulted in posters for the students that were entered in (and won) an undergraduate research competition at another university. Good research is more about depth of thought and analysis than breadth of work with shallow analysis and interpretation.
Even beyond the practical limitations for what we should do in research, we need to be teaching our students self-restraint when it comes to what is moral and ethical, keeping their efforts centered on what is honorable, true and right – and not just on what is possible. If we don’t ingrain in our students the importance of using that filter to rein in big dreams for the sake of fostering edifying dreams, we are failing in McMurry’s mission to build a better leader for tomorrow.
Senior BIMS major Luke Burcham has a fascination with fermentation. As an amateur brewmaster, his interest in the physiology of yeast fermentation has resulted in his choice for “life after McMurry”. He will be entering a graduate program at UC-Davis in January to study all things related to fermentation and brewing. From Borger TX to Davis CA is quite a move, but Luke is ready for the adventure.
With that in mind, Luke worked with Dr. Tom Benoit this semester to design a project that would give him a head-start on his graduate studies. After Luke reviewed some literature on the subject, he began to envision a project to investigate the impact of modifying the ion content of the growth medium for beer production to determine the best formulation. The experimental design began with a question on how calcium levels in the water used for the process might influence the physiology of the yeast in the batch. Could it be that increasing calcium ion content altered the growth characteristics of the yeast and alcohol content of the product? Would hard water result in a fundamentally different product than that produced in soft or distilled water?
Notes from research meetings and designs for experiments decorate the white board in the senior research lab (shown above). The final design Dr. Benoit and Luke settled on centered on using production of cell clumps and measurement of alcohol content as ways of monitoring physiological differences between batches. As yeast grow in a broth culture, they can form clumps of cells that fall out of suspension as nutrients are exhausted and the growth period comes to a close. This flocculation of yeast cells and cell debris is a necessary step to move from the cloudy active culture to a clear final (and commercially appealing) product. Could calcium concentration alter the dynamics of growth and flocculation?
After completing a variety of experiments this spring, the answer seems to be “yes”. Luke tells me that batches made with distilled/RO water averaged clumps of 17 cells (as measured microscopically using a hemacytometer), while batches made with added calcium chloride averaged clumps of 55 cells. In addition to having larger clumps, calcium enriched batches also produced less alcohol (as measured using a hydrometer). Luke is currently in the analysis process – explaining why clumps are larger and why larger clumps mean less alcohol produced – as he takes these findings and turns them into the final project poster for his capstone experience.
Luke’s project is a great example of the flexibility we provide our students to pursue senior projects in line with their interests and future plans. Luke’s future seems destined to be quite different from the one envisioned when he began his college life as a Biomedical Science major intent on dental school. However, the knowledge and skills and abilities gained in the BIMS program have application to his future and have equipped him well to succeed in his graduate work at UC-Davis.