When Angelo Falcon chose his water source for the first project in BIOL 3410 Microbiology lab, he had little idea that it would bring to light an issue being discussed in Abilene City Hall. The class was charged with finding various sources of ground water and surface water to test for the numbers and types of bacteria present. Angelo sampled water from a man-made waterfall downtown, while others in the class tested streams and lakes and ponds and wells in and around Abilene. Testing included a standard MPN (most probable number) assay, followed by isolation and purification of a Gram negative bacterium, characterization of its colony morphology and staining characteristics, and biochemical testing to provide hints at its identity. The project culminated in confirming the identifications of isolates using BD-BBL Crystal(R) E/NF panels for rapid identification of enteric and non-fermenting Gram negative rods. Angelo’s isolate came back as Enterobacter cloacae, and a little snooping revealed this to be a microbe frequently associated with sewage and soil. A conversation with people associated with the waterfall revealed the water source to be a shallow well tapping into an aquifer found under much of northern Abilene.
And that is things began to add up. In early September, Abilene’s City Council dealt with the issue of shallow ground water in northern Abilene and its unsanitary condition by issuing a warning to residents with wells into this water source – do not drink the water, do not use the water for irrigating vegetables, do not allow pets or livestock to drink the water. Angelo can testify to the presence of nasty bacteria in the water. Add to Angelo’s work confirming evidence from Amanda Carter, a classmate who tested water from her father’s north-side well, and you have every reason to believe City Council made the right decision.
Its nice when what you are doing in the lab to develop basic skills has a purpose and relevance to society.
This fall at universities around the world, some students will engage in a two-pronged approach to learning the knowledge and skills of microbiology lab technique. They will learn the conventional way, loop and burner and tubes and plates, and they will expand their opportunity to think like a microbiologist and simulate their lab work using their computers with software developed by Dr. Gary Wilson and his partners at Intuitive Systems, Inc. The software, VirtualUnknown(TM) Microbiology, is now over a decade old, and this summer marks the end of a two year-long development program to create a new, more versatile version. Dr. Wilson’s son, Marcus Wilson, has been the Java-developer making it all happen.
The original VU Microbiology was developed with particular goals in mind: solid microbiology instruction, true-to-life simulation requiring knowledge of aseptic technique, opportunities for students to make mistakes with consequences, detailed reporting in the Virtual Lab Report of all errors in technique and judgment – all in a game-like atmosphere. Judging by the popularity of the software with allied health programs, it scores on all points. But the leaps in technology over the past ten years have necessitated parallel improvements in the software. Whereas the original product was PC-exclusively and largely stand-alone, the new version will be “platform neutral” and Web-based. Testing on Mac, Linux, and Windows have all gone well, meaning any student with any computer will soon have equal access to this tool. VirtualUnknown(TM) Microbiology Web Edition (VUWEB) will be “Micro Anywhere!” incarnate.
To make that happen, Dr. Wilson has spent the summer taking care of the content and support components, while Marcus has been polishing the look, feel, and action of the software. Several tests were replaced with updated versions. New Help files had to be created that accounted for the current state of computer skills in average students, rather than on the average computer skills of 1998. A new lab activities manual was written, entitled Micro Digital Media(TM), along with an instructor’s key. MDM gets right to the nuts and bolts of microbiology and spends its 100 pages helping students learn how lab skills are used in a health setting. There is even an exercise to help students learn how to make fancy research posters to display their work.
What’s left? The Help files are text- and graphic-centered, but will also have extensive videos still in production. And there’s extensive beta testing to come. Anticipated product release will be Spring 2012.
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.