We believe strongly in our approach to research at McMurry. We see research as not being the “other” thing professors do after they have completed their teaching for the week; we see research as a great teaching tool for the average student. For instance, in Microbiology this semester the final project students are doing is determining whether their cell phones put out sufficient radiation to mutate the Staphylococci they isolated and identified from their bathrooms during project two. By doing this, they are learning literature searches, experimental design, development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria through random mutations (or in this case radiation-induced mutations), and scientific writing. All good skills we would have expected from our capstone students (well, the mutagenesis probably would’ve been some other investigation). Here, they are doing these things as sophomores. Similar approaches to research as a teaching tool are seen in many other BIMS courses, starting with their yeast fermentation experiments in their first semester General Biology I course.
But beyond research in regular lab courses, we also expect every student to have a capstone project involving research or internship. Research project currently in progress include the following:
- Studying the metagenomics of populations arising in Winogradsky columns vs. those of populations arising in Benoit columns (our Dr. Benoit has developed an alternative formulation for Winogradsky columns that uses diatomaceous earth instead of actual water source sediment as the basis for the solid phase of the column – see prior posts for more on this!). We are determining whether the Benoit column develops similar population profiles as those arising using actual sediment.
- Studying the presence of Coronaviruses in bat populations. Bat guano is collected and screened using genomic tools. Methodology began with samples recovered from museum specimens and has progressed to catching bats in the field and obtaining fresh samples.
- Studying the genomics of moles from museums around the nation to determine the biogeography and distribution of unique populations. Discovery of the westernmost specimens in Texas by one of our professors has led to this study to figure out which eastern population was the source so that a migration map can be constructed.
- Recovery of antimicrobial and anti-cancer chemicals from regional plants. Samples are obtained, studied chemically and physiologically for antibacterial properties on the McMurry campus. Collaborations between our faculty and those at other universities (University of San Francisco, Baylor University, and University of Pennsylvania) allow more advanced chemical analysis and anti-cancer screening assays.
- Studying the migration of crabs from coastal areas to inland lakes in Texas. Lots of time is spent sampling regional lakes for the presence of these invasive species to determine routes and methods they use for finding new freshwater habitats. A parallel study to this is the attempt to breed the crabs in captivity, something that has never been successfully done.
Is this it? Is this all our students have to choose from? Nope. This is simply the projects currently underway. We hope others will join our Research Teams and find their own, unique project from these and other options available at McMurry
The approach to teaching Microbiology labs at McMurry is really an exercise in making something from nothing. This next week my BIOL 3410 students will be conducting growth curves of bacteria. That is nothing unusual for students in a course like this. However, my McMurry students have been challenged with creating their own broth media from scratch using kitchen items. The competition pits groups against one another to come up with a medium that will support the growth of microbes. We prepared on broths on Thursday, first step being to make sure their clear broths will survive autoclaving. It is always fun to see what they come up with – this semester one group found the fluid from a can of tuna fish doesn’t make a clear broth as well as an extract from boiled spinach and potato. SlimFast didn’t work so well, creating an opaque medium unsuitable for our study. Another group found a protein supplement and vitamin water made a very nice medium. Tuesday and Wednesday the games begin!
The organisms they will use are another exercise in making something from nothing, as they are the natural isolates (Staphylococci and enteric organisms) my students collected, purified, and identified earlier in the course. Each group will try their medium with six of the cocci and six enterics, following growth spectrophotometrically. Then the results will be pooled to see whose medium maximized the growth for the greatest number of bacteria. All groups will report their results in the form of research posters that will adorn our walls for the remainder of the semester. Winner gets an automatic advantage on their poster grade.
I could have given each group an organism and made their medium for them. But what would my students have learned about the chemistry and content of media by doing that? What would they have learned about the distribution of microbes in nature and the thought that goes into identifying them if I had given them cultures from our stock collection? If you can get as much “bang for your buck” making something from nothing, why not make learning fun and relevant?
There is a way of teaching that brings deeper learning, the fun of competition, and the satisfaction of accomplishment in demonstrating mastery of skills and knowledge through problem-solving. It is called discovery-based learning. We do that through research-rich teaching. McMurry’s BIMS program is committed to doing more to bring the science out of students – just putting science into students is not enough!