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.
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”.