Tag: experimental design


by gwilson on Nov.21, 2015, under A Day in the Life...

DSCN3124We believe strongly in our approach to research at McMurry.  We see research as not being the “other” thing professors do after they have completed their teaching for the week; we see research as a great teaching tool for the average student.  For instance, in Microbiology this semester the final project students are doing is determining whether their cell phones put out sufficient radiation to mutate the Staphylococci they isolated and identified from their bathrooms during project two.  By doing this, they are learning literature searches, experimental design, development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria through random mutations (or in this case radiation-induced mutations), and scientific writing.  All good skills we would have expected from our capstone students (well, the mutagenesis probably would’ve been some other investigation).  Here, they are doing these things as sophomores.  Similar approaches to research as a teaching tool are seen in many other BIMS courses, starting with their yeast fermentation experiments in their first semester General Biology I course.

But beyond research in regular lab courses, we also expect every student to have a capstone project involving research or internship.  Research project currently in progress include the following:

  • Studying the metagenomics of populations arising in Winogradsky columns vs. those of populations arising in Benoit columns (our Dr. Benoit has developed an alternative formulation for Winogradsky columns that uses diatomaceous earth instead of actual water source sediment as the basis for the solid phase of the column – see prior posts for more on this!).  We are determining whether the Benoit column develops similar population profiles as those arising using actual sediment.
  • Studying the presence of Coronaviruses in bat populations.  Bat guano is collected and screened using genomic tools.  Methodology began with samples recovered from museum specimens and has progressed to catching bats in the field and obtaining fresh samples.
  • Studying the genomics of moles from museums around the nation to determine the biogeography and distribution of unique populations.  Discovery of the westernmost specimens in Texas by one of our professors has led to this study to figure out which eastern population was the source so that a migration map can be constructed.
  • Recovery of antimicrobial and anti-cancer chemicals from regional plants.  Samples are obtained, studied chemically and physiologically for antibacterial properties on the McMurry campus.  Collaborations between our faculty and those at other universities (University of San Francisco, Baylor University, and University of Pennsylvania) allow more advanced chemical analysis and anti-cancer screening assays.
  • Studying the migration of crabs from coastal areas to inland lakes in Texas.  Lots of time is spent sampling regional lakes for the presence of these invasive species to determine routes and methods they use for finding new freshwater habitats.  A parallel study to this is the attempt to breed the crabs in captivity, something that has never been successfully done.

Is this it?  Is this all our students have to choose from?  Nope.  This is simply the projects currently underway.  We hope others will join our Research Teams and find their own, unique project from these and other options available at McMurry

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Improving the aim of fungi

by gwilson on Oct.01, 2015, under A Day in the Life..., Projects

dung_cannonIn BIMS, we believe a student “gets it” more quickly when the topics covered in lab are intertwined and connected – not when they follow the disjointed and unrelated approach seen at most colleges and universities.  For that reason, we are teaching our Gen Bio I lab through student participation in four major projects.  We believe we can give students a good look at the various topics central a first semester freshman biology course through Winogradsky columns (their “pets”), experiments with the fungus Pilobolus, photosynthesis with alginate balls containing the alga Chlorella, and fermentation experiments using the yeast Saccharomyces.

Pilobolus is a fungus that grows on the dung of herbivorous animals.  It is sometimes called the “shotgun fungus” or “dung cannon” because of its means for dispersing spores.  Its life cycle includes production of spores that shoot out from the fungal colony to land on nearby grasses.  When a herbivore eats those grasses, the fungus germinates and grows in the animal waste where it produces more spores to shoot out and start the cycle over again.  The key to success for the fungus is a light-sensitive structure that helps aim the spores away from surrounding dung toward an open area where new grass can be found.

The question our students have been asked to determine is whether it is possible to improve the accuracy of the fungus by natural selection.  Cultures are grown in a closed container with a hole provided for light to pass through.  Our students are placing sterile coverslips over the holes to catch any spores that are accurately shot at the light.  Those inaccurate spores hit and stick to the other parts of the container.  So each group will create one of these chambers and after two weeks will take photos of the inside of the chamber to document where spores hit (the scatter pattern).  Then, the cover slips are removed and used to inoculate new plates of media.  The experiment is repeated with new chambers to see if spore accuracy is improved by using spores that were accurate the first time.  If the spores hitting the coverslip give rise to fungal colonies with more accurate spores, the scatter pattern for the second test should be much smaller and more concentrated than before.

What are we learning?  Phototropism, some mycology, cell biology, cultivation techniques, experimental design, data analysis, and much more.  Will this work?  We’ll let you know in a few weeks!

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Our Guiding Principles – Part 5

by gwilson on Jul.31, 2012, under Program

malaney presentation 2I have a friend who as a graduate student invested five years into a research project in immunology.  She walked into a meeting with her dissertation committee one summer thinking it was the last briefing on her work before defending for her doctorate, and left the room with a non-thesis masters.  Something in her project had gone terribly wrong in the eyes of the committee and five years of work and promise ended up worthless in the end for an unsuspecting graduate student.  She was a determined student and started over in another program and in about four more years received her doctorate.  What a horror story!

Our fifth guiding principle is “choose projects with a high probability of success“.  We do not believe in placing students in situations where the outcome of their capstone work could leave them with nothing to show for the semester.  There are two ways we do this.  First, we do not allow students to enter into research where the results are a huge gamble – “win big or go home” is not our idea of sound research…at least not with a student’s first self-designed project conducted in their last year of college as a requirement for graduation.  For this reason, we seldom allow students to start with a blank piece of paper for their design.  Student-conceived project ideas tend to be too grandiose and risk-laden to be practical under our timeline.  Remember our other guiding principles:  ”Keep it simple, keep it short!”, and “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should!”  So, we talk with the student and try to steer them into projects where the basic infrastructure and literature base and track record for results are clearly established on our campus.  Then we talk about what is known in the literature and what is not known, allowing the student to carve out a short, simple project that is meaningful (has unknown outcomes and thus represents real research).  So, you might say the project is student chosen from within departmental imposed parameters.

The second way we help students build a project with a high probability of success is through careful attention to experimental design.  We pride ourselves on helping students design projects that maximize results while minimizing work and time.  We want students to complete their planned experiments, conduct follow-up experiments, and produce their research paper or poster quickly.  That can only happen in this way.  So, we make sure that the first experiment (the initial planned work by the student) provides data that is unique and useful whatever the outcome. Experiments that either work or don’t work are not considered (the suggestion from that is either success or failure is the only result possible).  Instead, experiments are designed with the follow-up experiment in mind – if it turns out this way, we’ll do this…but if it turns out that way, we’ll do that.  By taking this approach, we teach students the importance of not just designing an experiment, but planning a project.

In the coming months, take a look at our webpage where the results of student capstone projects will be posted.  It is called “The Lab Report”. (

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