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”.
McMurry’s spring semester is underway and classes for Biomedical Science majors continue to draw interest from students and campus leaders. The BIMS 1300 Intro to Scientific Research course is filled beyond capacity. Taught by Dr. Wilson, students will explore what science is, how scientists work, and how the methods of science influence all of society. For instance, next week students will watch a video on the design firm IDEO and explore the basic science, applied science, engineering, and design that have gone into a variety of consumer products.
Dr. Benoit is teaching BIOL 1301 Unicellular Organisms to a healthy number of students. Their semester-long project will investigate protozoans and will culminate with identification, characterization, and photomicrography of single-celled organisms. This has proven to be a very popular and interesting class for new freshmen, and sets the stage well for a degree program filled with hands-on exploration of biomedical topics.
BIOL 3410 Microbiology is also filled to capacity and BIOL 3430 Human Physiology has a healthy enrollment. Both are part of the sophomore sequence for all BIMS majors. Dr. Wilson’s Micro course will feature lab projects looking at the microbial census of student cars, microbes in fresh foods, and viruses from the soil. As always, the focus is on learning knowledge and skills by jumping into research projects – students work as scientists to learn about microbiology. Dr. Sharp’s Human Phys will use a mixture of computer sims and hands-on biometrics to explore the workings of the human body.
Also being taught this semester is BIMS 4391 Advanced Microbiology. Dr. Wilson is leading five students on a quest to isolate and identify endospore-forming bacteria that produce antibiotics. Students will then produce the product using new benchtop fermenters and characterize the antibiotic product physically and chemically. The class is also considering a jaunt down to T-Bar-M ranch for the Spring Meeting of the Texas Branch of the American Society Microbiology, which emphasizes graduate and undergraduate research. ROAD TRIP!
Another unique feature of the BIMS program is the BIMS 4000 Junior Exam course, where students take a departmental diagnostic exam over their first two years of courses to help assess their learning to this point and to help the department assess the effectiveness of its courses in teaching fundamental information. The five students signed up for the course may take this online exam as often as needed to achieve a passing grade.
Finally, several students are engaged in capstone research this semester with Drs. Benoit and Wilson. They will be ramping up the YES assay for detecting estrogen-like compounds in environmental samples of water and soil. We’ve challenged them with developing the protocols for use on campus and developing the standard curve for the assay, then begin testing on some samples from area surface and ground waters.
So, it is a busy time for a healthy program. Bright students have chosen our unique approach to education and are thriving in the hands-on environment.
As part of the renovation this summer, our program was asked what equipment we might need to help usher in new teaching and research opportunities for our students. We were excited to have the opportunity to evaluate what our faculty and students want to do in our labs and to adjust our equipment to allow that work to happen.
Our labs are extremely well supplied with equipment for teaching genetics and molecular biology, so this summer we will add some equipment to help us investigate cell physiology and growth. One of those items we made sure to include was fermenters. We ordered five. These fermenters will allow our students to study growth of microbes. Maybe they’ll find out how to maximize growth of oil-eating microbes, how to improve antibiotic production by bacteria they isolate (maybe one of them will come up with a new drug?!), or how to modify foods to improve their safety. Just another example of how BIMS puts learning into action to solve world problems.