BIMS

Tag: small college research

Pooling Resources, Creating Opportunities

by gwilson on Mar.23, 2009, under A Day in the Life..., Projects, Students

endospore21This spring, Dr. Paul Pyenta has his Biochemistry II students diverging from the normal course of lab exercises.  In doing so, he is accomplishing three things:  teaching the techniques and knowledge of the course in a new and engaging way, giving his students exposure to how research is done, and keeping his personal involvement in research going.

About two years ago, a conversation between Pyenta and two Biology faculty exposed a problem he was equipped to tackle.  Drs Wilson and Benoit are microbiologists who study the spores of Bacillus thuringiensis.  Bt, as it is called, is mostly known for its production of a toxin that is selectively toxic for the larvae of several damaging insect pests.  During Wilson’s doctoral research, an interesting observation was made – the spores made in the soil seem better suited to survival in insects, and the spores made in insects seem better suited to survival in the soil.  This has spurred a desire to study the ecology of the organism more closely, and led Benoit to propose an experiment to follow the fate of individual spores through susceptible and non-susceptible insects.  But, with Bt spores so small, no convenient way was available to do the experiment.

Enter Dr. Pyenta.  In conversation, it was decided that spores and cells expressing green fluorescent protein (gfp) could be used to follow the spores through the insect. Only problem – no appropriate gfp-containing Bt strains existed.  All previous cloning of gfp in Bt was done to follow the presence of the crystal protein in nature, in genetically modified foods and the like.  Their discussion led to a proposal - Pyenta proposed that his lab could clone the gfp gene into Bt so that a visible marker was present to detect the fate of spores.

The cloning work has been conducted for the past two years by undergraduate students doing independent research for Pyenta.  It has gone slowly, as many quirks make cloning into Bt not possible by use of traditional methods commonly used.  Progress made so far has moved the project to the point where students in his Biochem II lab are equipped to use the lessons learned to tackle the project this semester.  In doing this, students get to see how the skills and knowledge of their regular course can actually be put into action on a real research project. 

One of the frustrations science faculty face at small colleges is finding time to remain active in research.  Expecting similar productivity to that achieved when one was a member of a research team working full-time on a project funded by a national agency is foolishness.  Instead, faculty must find creative ways to keep their skills up, perform experiments in economical and efficient ways, and use available resources wisely.  Dr. Pyenta is accomplishing these things by teaching his course through involving students in his research (instead of relying on a bunch of unrelated and seemingly random canned exercises leading nowhere), by conducting the work within the parameters of his normal teaching load, and by pooling resources through collaboration with other faculty on a project of common interest.

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