BIMS

Tag: spore ecology

Home Port

by gwilson on May.22, 2011, under A Day in the Life...

dolph-towLast night I finished a book on the submarine the USS Scorpion and was struck by how busy naval ships are when they return to their home ports.  Rather than the boats sitting idle while the crew gets some R&R, it is a time when systems are tested, problems are fixed, and improvements are made.  With the close of the spring semester and the onset of summer, we find our BIMS program returning from a year “at sea” where the courses and techniques and facilities have been operating to conduct our “mission” – teaching BIMS majors.  Now with the conclusion of the year, we are  back in “home port” doing the same program tests, fixes, and upgrades submariners do before we take our program back out to sea next fall.  We find ourselves taking stock of what worked, what didn’t, and what comes next…

What worked.

  • We were pleased with the direction taken in BIMS 1300 Introduction to Scientific Research.  The focus on learning the basics of how science is conducted, how to critically analyze the world around us, and how to apply the skills of science and analysis to better understand  our world was a positive development this year.
  • We were pleased with the functionality of the new spaces for teaching and research that came online in November.  The micro lab was used by three different lab/lecture classes without any trainwrecks.  The student project spaces gave us flexible space to support student work outside of regular hours that functioned flawlessly.  Student card access to the labs was appreciated by students and allowed some previously impossible activities (round-the-clock monitoring of growth) to take place.  New equipment in the student research labs and teaching labs gave new approaches for studying lab problems.
  • We were pleased with the new Genetics course taught by Dr. Brosius.  As a more balanced mixture of Mendelian, population, and molecular genetics, it gave an exceptional foundation for students ready to delve deeper in Molecular Cell Biology classes next year.
  • We were pleased with the transition to a new schedule for offering BIMS courses in the freshman sequence.  Next year, our new sequence will be fully operational.

What didn’t work.

  • We found the positioning of some pieces of equipment in our new spaces to be less than ideal.  For instance, a large rack for placement of backpacks and student materials went unused and students continued to put those things on the floor of the lab.  Incubators were crowded together making access by students from two classes meeting simultaneously very difficult.  After “living in the spaces” for a full semester, we will “rearrange some of the furniture” this summer.
  • We found less success in Advanced Micro and capstones than was hoped.  We realized halfway through the semester that student ownership of the projects was necessary in order to move them toward self-sufficiency and greater investment in getting results, and so we made adjustments to that effect.  Still, at the end we realized there were other steps we could have taken to improve the experience and the productivity.
  • A hiring freeze undermined our efforts to fill the vacant molecular biologist position that has hamstrung us during the year.  We are unable to deliver our complete BIMS program without that person, and so we found ourselves scrambling to substitute courses to allow students to graduate.  The result was for those graduates a fine degree but in some ways lacking of all the breadth and depth BIMS should have.

What’s next?

  • BIMS faculty are spending May taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the intention to refine our efforts to improve our program.  This annual review and planning insures we don’t continue doing the same things in the same ways out of habit or because it is easy.
  • Even in the midst of a hiring freeze, we have secured the services of McM alumna Sheena Banks to teach molecular courses for us as an adjunct.  Sheena received her MS in Immunology from UTMB and is working as a Research Associate at the TTUHSC School of Pharmacy.  This should help us bring a major portion of the molecular dimension of the BIMS program back online.
  • We will continue to experiment with courses and their delivery next year.  For instance, the BIOL 1301 Unicellular Organisms course and BIMS 1101 Uni Lab will receive a major overhaul next year to help strengthen areas in student learning that our testing of junior and senior BIMS students has revealed.  Also,  the BIMS 4491 Advanced Micro course for the fall will focus on spore ecology and physiology, and will meet in two hour blocks three times weekly.  Students will see how different compositions of growth media influence the size and resistance of Bacillus thuringiensis endospores.  Our expectation is that this work will result in presentation at the spring meeting of the Texas Branch of the American Society for Microbiology and subsequent publication.

All this is to say the BIMS program is not static, is never satisfied.  While for many on campus the summer represents a time of rest, for us it is a very busy time.  We want our program to be the best it can be – battle-ready and tested, improved – when we set sail again next fall to accomplish our mission to give BIMS majors the very best knowledge and skills and experiences possible.

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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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