New institute giving MC students high-quality science experiences

July 29, 2011
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications

Participating in Maryville College’s Undergraduate Science Education and Research Institute will go on the résumés or curriculum vitas of 10 Maryville College students this summer, and the institute just might influence where those résumés end up.

The summer experience is opening students’ eyes to new possibilities in science.

“I didn’t think I’d be this interested in research,” said Tyler Carter, a rising junior who’s majoring in biology at the College. “I never thought I’d be interested in the micro-scale instead of the macro-scale.”

Rebecca Heard, a senior biology major who is interested in a career with animals, said she would also consider laboratory work after graduation.

“Being in a lab eight hours a day has been more exciting than I thought it would be,” she admitted. “Time flies because we’re doing something we enjoy.”

Carter and Heard are two of three students who are training and researching with Dr. Jerilyn Swann this summer as a part of the institute. Swann, associate professor of biology and interim chair of the Natural Sciences Division, is overseeing the program.

Dr. Drew Crain, professor of biology, is overseeing the projects of four undergraduates in biology, and Ms. Irene Guerinot, instructor and laboratory coordinator, is coordinating a physics section for three students.

Most students are in laboratories between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Like their contemporaries who have summer jobs, the 10 are earning money for the work they’re doing. Each student receives a stipend.

Funded through a $300,000 congressional grant administered through the United States Department of Education (ED) and the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) program, the Maryville College Undergraduate Science Education and Research Institute has as its goals attracting – and then preparing – talented students for professional lives as scientists.

Five weeks in, it seems to be succeeding.

Focusing on goals, not grades

With new microscopes, new micropipettors and a new pH meter (all made possible through the ED/FIPSE grant), Carter, Heard and Maryville College sophomore Stephen Revilla have spent hours in a biology laboratory in Sutton Science Center, learning basic laboratory culturing practices, such as sterile technique, media filtration and sterilization. They’ve also learned more about the proper usage of lab equipment like microplate readers, hemocytometers and microcentrifuges.

The three students are putting their research training into practice immediately by counting cell cultures of the ciliated protozoan, Tetrahymena pyriformis. The project builds on research conducted in 2009 and 2010 by recent graduate Abby Ogle ’11. She devised an innovative method for accurately counting cell cultures of Tetrahymena using an ethidium bromide/acridine orange viability staining method.

Carter said he enjoys having the time to make new discoveries in the lab. Assignments during the school year are often about achieving one result in a limited amount of time. In the institute, he can experiment and follow the data.

“It’s nice to go for a goal and not a grade,” he said.

Ogle was invited to present her findings to scientists attending the 2010 American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. This year, the conference is in Denver, Colo., and Carter, Heard and Revilla will travel there to present on recent findings from the continuing research.

The grant is funding the trip.

It’s also funding field research. Rising senior Steven Giblock, a biology major and advisee of Crain, spent a month in South Carolina, studying three populations of the fiddler crab, two of which were exposed to environmental pollutants. Giblock, who plans to study marine biology in graduate school, brought back to campus 250 crabs from his reference site and is now conducting mesocosm experiments.

Rising senior and biology major Adam Patterson is conducting a survey of terrestrial vertebrates in an area of the College Woods that will soon support two orchards. He is using different methods for surveying, including trapping, conducting point-count surveys and installing drift fences.

“The MC Undergraduate Science Education and Research Institute is giving participants specific skills and experiences that they can write on their curriculum vitas or resumes,” Swann explained. “It makes them more competitive.

“In addition to having the liberal arts education, and the analytical and communication skills that go along with that, this institute gives them more hands-on experience, so they’ll know how to do more,” she added. “Learning new techniques will help students make transitions more easily. In science, you have to be able to adapt quickly.”

Capturing science on video

Stepping away from the microscopes during portions of the day, Carter, Heard and Revilla are shooting and editing pre-lab videos for Swann’s BIO 115: Principles of Cellular Biology course. At the project’s completion, 12 videos will be uploaded to YouTube that visually explain concepts like DNA isolation, yeast fermentation and enzyme kinetics.

Down the hallway in Sutton Science Center, two of Dr. Crain’s students, Macey Holt and Matthew Hale, are filming instructional videos that explain the science of food. The videos, which tackle subjects such as electrolyte concentration, lactose intolerance and genetically modified crops – will be uploaded to YouTube and shown in Crain’s SCI 150: Principles in Scientific Investigation course, which is taught to non-science majors.

Holt and Hale spent a lot of time at the beginning of the summer, brainstorming ways that complex scientific concepts could be explained to laypeople. In addition to writing the scripts for the videos and then editing them, the students researched lab assignments, wrote lab assignments and tested them.

“I made sure I knew the material well enough to explain it in simplest terms so that my parents or my grandparents could understand it, and that’s what I thought of while making the videos and labs,” Holt said. “So far we have received great feedback – my parents and other family friends say they have actually learned something from our videos.”

The summer experience has opened Holt’s eyes to the possibilities of teaching.

“Helping students understand biology and sharing my passion for the subject at the same time would be a fulfilling career,” she said.

Lab assignments by students

In the physics lab, Guerinot’s students are putting together 16 lab assignments for students enrolled in introductory physics courses.

Rising junior Marley Kalis is one of three students who are collaborating on projects that will help students understand concepts such as vectors, electrical currents, projectiles and thermodynamics.

Kalis is a biology major who hopes to continue her education in medical school or nursing school. But she took physics last year and enjoyed the material, so when she was offered a position within the institute working with the physics team, she took it. She said she believes designing assignments with a recent student perspective should be a benefit.

The team constructed a cornhole set (similar to a bean bag toss game) then painted it the College’s colors, orange and garnet.

“The game will illustrate projectiles,” Kalis explained.

Preparing students for ‘next steps’

Swann said watching students grow in their science skills has been one of the most rewarding aspects of managing the institute this summer. Also rewarding has been seeing the students get to know each other, support each other and collaborate.

Except for the number of participants, Swann and other faculty members in the Natural Sciences division didn’t know with whom they would be working this summer when the formation of the institute was announced last semester.

“The application process was open to all students,” Swann explained. “This institute is about training in science, so it was an equal opportunity for everyone.”

“I looked for self-motivated students who I knew would be dedicated to the project,” she added. “And I also considered the institute’s potential to help applicants with those next steps – whether that’s grad school, med school or a job in a science-related industry.”

Revilla, a biochemistry major, is thinking about a career in emergency room medicine. Before participating in the institute this summer, he said he was uncomfortable in the lab. Now he said he feels more at home with science, its equipment and processes.

For Carter, the experience has been affirming. He said he now realizes that science is the “right path” for him.

Swann said she appreciates the dedication of many individuals who worked on the successful ED/FIPSE grant proposal.

“Many thanks go to Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr., Maryville College administrators and former MC professor Dr. Ben Cash, who fought hard to get this appropriation so that we are better equipped to offer high-quality science experiences for MC students,” she said.

Science and life

The institute isn’t all work and no fun.

It is the summer, after all.

“We’ve gone tubing on the Little River, had a picnic and enjoyed some ice cream together,” Swann said. “With these ‘fun days,’ I’ve tried to model for them the necessity of having a balance in life.”

Swann recounted a story of solving – while floating down the river in an inner tube – a problem she was facing in the lab. With head back and eyes looking toward the tree limbs overhead, she was able to see the big picture. And in the big picture was her answer.

“That was a good thing!” she said of the outing and resulting epiphany. “Research in a lab can be very stressful, and these students will need to learn that it’s important to get away occasionally for proper reflection and rejuvenation.”

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.