The end of the semester always bring forth a new crop of student research projects from the BIOL 3410 Microbiology lab. The first portion of the course’s lab is filled with projects to teach skills and knowledge. Then, in the last 5 weeks of the semester student groups design, conduct, analyze, and present their work.
All of these projects were imagined and conducted by students. They demonstrate the freedom students have in Microbiology to have some fun by using their skills to investigate more deeply an area of the course that was of particular interest to them along the way. Here’s a synopsis of some of the projects conducted this spring.
“The inhibition of mannitol use in a Gram positive coccus by bacitracin.” One group of students made a very curious observation when they were testing their unknown bacteria for antibiotic susceptibility. One person’s Staphylococcus aureus was unable to use mannitol on MSA in the presence of bacitracin. No other Gram positive cocci, including other strains of S. aureus, showed this unusual feature. Their work investigated the phenomenon.
“Growth of bacterial cells in the presence of pomegranate and UV light.” This group wanted to test the effectiveness of pomegranate juice as an anticancer agent by using DNA damage induced by UV light as their indicator for cell transformation. They grew cells on media containing pomegranate extract, collected them and exposed them to UV light, and then tested their survival in comparison to controls.
“Growth and identification of bacteria isolated from raw vegetables.” With the recent scare posed by Salmonella appearing in foods, this group decided to see whether any particular vegetables posed a greater threat in carrying those bacteria. They found many bacteria and fungi, identified many of the bacteria, but found the vegetables tested were free from Salmonella.
“Impact of tobacco products on the growth of bacteria.” Various tobacco products were added to growth media and growth curves were conducted to determine whether bacterial growth was retarded or enhanced.
These projects are indicative of the types routinely seen – students applying the skills learned in the course to study something of interest to them. Are health supplements really effective? Are my vegetables safe? Do the chemicals in tobacco hurt cell growth? If we accomplish in our courses the transference of knowledge to provide answers pertaining to the world at large, we have accomplished education’s greatest goal.
We are nearing the end of the spring semester at McMurry, and every course is experiencing the “crunch” that comes from too much left to do and to little time left for its accomplishment. The BIMS program being in its infancy, we have had to settle for minor successes in most every class. Sorting through the problems and issues associated with implementing a new approach to teaching has left us a bit disappointed while also very encouraged.
The Chlamydomonas races our freshman students were working on will have to be modified somewhat. Isolation of the organisms from natural sources, culturing them, their purification, and selection of the fastest strains was not as straightforward as we’d hoped. Too much light here, too few nutrients there, and we end up refocusing the course on how best to grow the “wee beasties”. The final projects in Microbiology have been compacted into only two weeks due to overruns in previous experiments done by the class (the growth curve experiment previously reported, among them). No doubt there will be some excellent projects still (one survey of produce items for Salmonella shows some promising early results, and another focused on how tobacco products influence bacterial growth and mutation looks to be very well designed). The cancer research being done in the senior capstone course has been toned down a bit due to problems with culturing the cancer cells (as chronicled previously). As a result, the DNA sequencing that was planned may now be modified into a less ambitious project.
Are we disappointed? Yes. Are we discouraged? No. Like research itself, the establishment of a new program or protocol is frequently a learning experience where adaptations and modifications are the norm. In spite of the setbacks, much is being learned. Faculty are learning our strengths and limitations and are sure this time next year the results we report will be exciting and interesting. Students have experienced the “high” that comes from putting ideas to the test to find truth about nature. More than one has expressed greater excitement and interest in research as a future. As one put it, “If you don’t stop making science so much fun, I may decide I don’t want to go to medical school afterall!”
The greatest discovery of all this semester has been that our discovery-based approach in a research-rich and skills-laden environment works to engage students and deliver courses effectively to eager and willing and excited students. We are encouraged about the future of the program and its impact on our students.