Dr. Kelly Hallstrom is excited that a student in her microbiology laboratory is analyzing soil samples to see if they contain any natural antimicrobials, part of Tiny Earth, an international project to address the decline in antibiotic development by the pharmaceutical industry. New antibiotics are needed to combat bacteria that resist current treatments.
But each time Jada Davis, a senior from Jamaica majoring in biochemistry, is transferring samples from soil to plate, Hallstrom knows some of the bacteria aren’t surviving the trip. It’s something that wouldn’t be an issue if the lab was equipped with a DNA sequencer.
“We certainly are able to do a fair bit,” says Hallstrom, an assistant professor of microbiology. “What’s great about microbiology is that growing bacteria is very cheap. We can grow a lot of bacteria. The analysis is where the limitations are.”
Students have reached these limitations in the lab before. A pair of students researching microplastics in local waterways found plastics and were able to do that due to the fl uorescent microscope they have in the lab – but analyzing what bacteria were growing on those plastics would have required more specialized equipment.
“We want to have a lab that can take us to another level, where we can do deeper undergraduate research. The construction of a new biology laboratory would not only allow for a growth in capacity for programs such as biology, biochemistry, forensic science, and nursing; it would increase the potential for undergraduate student research,” says Dr. Ian MacDonald, dean of the School of Mathematics and Sciences. “Saint Rose is in a very unique position to grow research because we have an ideal facultystudent ratio, and we have students who are thirsty for research. We need to have capable labs and some more advanced equipment. Additionally, adding capacity through a new biology laboratory would allow us to better specialize each of the existing labs.”
That’s why a campaign is underway to raise funds for a new microbiology laboratory. The $750,000 project would add needed equipment, like the DNA sequencer, but would also better accommodate students as the demand for lab access grows with the popularity of such programs as forensic science and new programs like nursing. The College has also seen an uptick in the number of students wanting to conduct undergraduate research.
For Davis, who plans to attend graduate school after spending some time working in the field, the Tiny Earth project has been a fascinating way to look at real-world problems and make the things she’s learned in her courses come to life.
“The most interesting part of working on this research is knowing that the diverse colonies that I ended up working with all came from one small, diluted soil sample from the Saint Rose campus. Knowing that soil is all around us and seeing the diversity among the colonies from just one small soil sample shows me that there is still so much to learn about microbes and how they can help us in the fight against antibiotic resistance,” she says.
“The experiments might not be difficult to conduct, but they provide so much information on the colonies I am working with. Whenever I remember that those relatively simple experiments can contribute to helping a serious problem, I remember there are ways we can all contribute to helping solve issues that the world is facing.”
Most regularly offered lab-based courses at the College require a minimum of three to four hours of laboratory time, as well as the traditional lecture, leaving fewer gaps for independent research. Although supplies are replenished regularly, the last major laboratory upgrade at Saint Rose was in 2010.
Prospective students who want to major in the natural sciences also look closely at facilities when weighing their options, so better facilities are critical to attracting new students to the College.
The proposed microbiology laboratory would be approximately 1,200 square feet, using the existing footprint for the current lab, and would be designed to accommodate 16 to 18 students.
And Saint Rose plays an important role in building the pipeline of scientists and researchers as the STEM fields seek to increase the representation of diverse populations and perspectives in laboratories. In Fall 2021, 53% of undergraduate students in the School of Mathematics and Sciences identified as students of color.
The George I. Alden Trust has pledged $100,000 if the rest of the project funds are raised. Although the campaign is young, the College has secured over $53,000 toward the lab. Saint Rose has also submitted a request for federal funding to U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Paul Tonko.
“Genomics have been at the forefront of microbiology for quite some time,” Hallstrom says. “Without being able to do those analyses, we are limited in how we can prepare students for the future.”
Would you like to help support the microbiology lab project?