Davidson Students Will Present Research at Microbiology Meeting
March 20, 2001
Two student scientists at Davidson College will present results of their under- graduate research projects at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
Seniors Christine E. Larned from Wilmington, Del., and Erin E. McKinley from Chariton, Iowa, have received grants from the organization to showcase their work at its annual meeting May 20-24 in Orlando. About 13,000 people from throughout the country and around the world are expected to attend.
Assistant Professor of Biology David Wessner, who supervised both projects, said the work was not easy. "What's been most impressive is their ability to tackle projects that required so much testing and inevitable dead ends," Wessner said. "They have shown remarkable persistence and character to see this work through to a successful conclusion."
Larned received an ASM student travel grant to present research on DNA sequencing protocols that she developed with Wessner, Assistant Professor Karen Bernd, and three other students‹recent graduate Shannon Riedley, senior John McKillop, and junior Liz Nugent.
Funded primarily through a grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, the project developed protocols whereby undergraduate students can discover much more about the molecular activity of a model gene than was previously possible in their lab exercises.
The increasing importance of genomics in science, medicine, and industry demands that today's students develop proficiency in DNA sequencing and gene studies. However, this training has not been incorporated into undergraduate biology labs because DNA sequencing protocols are expensive, time-consuming, and require either radioactive detection or an automated DNA sequencer. Likewise, traditional RNA isolation techniques require the use of the toxic compound, phenol.
Larned and her collaborators developed a cost-effective, rapid, chemiluminescent DNA sequencing and detection protocol, and a phenol-free RNA isolation protocol, which can both be completed within two or three afternoon lab sessions.
She noted that the experience of independent research gave her a much broader understanding of the scientific process than standard lab exercises. "I had to take care of everything from the setup to the clean-up," she said. "I learned how to handle the complete lab process."
McKinley received a student research fellowship from ASM in spring 2000 that included travel expenses to this year's conference. The fellowship has financed her independent study honors research into the stability of a mutant form of the reovirus strain "type 3 Dearing." The mutant viruses exhibit increased resistance to ethanol, which destroys non-mutated viruses. McKinley showed that these mutant viruses also exhibit increased resistance to phenol and elevated temperatures.
The process of running four-hour plaque assays that frequently didn't yield consistent results was demanding, McKinley said. "With independent research like this there's no lab book to follow," she said. "You're on your own, and you learn that trying to take shortcuts in science just doesn't work."
McKinley said her year-long work finally yielded successful data this semester. While the research has no immediate commercial application, she said it does serve as a model in learning more about the pathogenesis of a virus.
Looking to the future, McKinley hypothesized that the ability to genetically engineer heat resistance into the inert viruses of medical vaccines would make it much easier to distribute them in less developed countries. Most current vaccines must be refrigerated, she said, making it difficult to administer them in remote areas of the world.
Both Larned and McKinley will create posters about their research, and display those posters at the ASM meeting. Larned's project will also be submitted for publication to a scientific education journal.
More important than the opportunity to present their own work, however, both women said that the meeting will give them a tremendous opportunity to learn more about the state of the art of microbiology. "These are really exciting times in biology," said Larned, "We should come away with a much better understanding of the opportunities and challenges in the field."
Neither student plans to immediately pursue a career in biological research, but both hope to eventually apply their scientific skills to their work. McKinley has been hired as a management trainee for the industrial supply company, McMaster Carr in Chicago, next year. "I'm interested in eventually bridging the gap between science and business, perhaps in biotechnology," she said.
Larned is also looking for a post-graduate job, and also hopes to eventually combine her interest in biology with another field.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.