At Luther, research is performed not only to advance our understanding of the natural world but also to provide research training opportunities for undergraduate students. Performing research and directing student research projects is a significant and rewarding part of my work.
My goal is to help students experience all aspects of the scientific process and to help them develop a full range of scientific skills, including: designing, performing, and analyzing experiments, writing grant proposals to obtain research funding , and presenting work at regional and national meetings and in publication form. I am an advocate of designing projects that allow independent work and individual ownership.
I generally have several students working on at least one of my two major research projects in any given semester and/or summer. Almost all of the students who have performed research with me have continued their education, in either graduate school (e.g., programs in microbiology, public health, cell/molecular biology, philosophy/bioethics, and microbial engineering) or professional school (e.g., medical and dental school).
Water Quality Research: Water quality and availability is of major importance locally, in the State of Iowa, and the world. We have been performing water quality research in a local watershed that is impaired for bacteria, specifically the Dry Run Creek Watershed. This 20,000-acre watershed drains into a common stream that enters the City of Decorah and subsequently empties in the Upper Iowa River. We have surveyed over 10 sites in the Dry Run Creek Watershed for multiple years, with the goal of identifying sites that are more prominent contributors of pollution. We assess a variety of field parameters, including temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity (a measure of the number of charged molecules), and turbidity (a measure of water cloudiness). We also measure chemical and biological parameters, including nitrate, ammonia, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, chloride, E. coli (indicator of fecal pollution), and benthic macroinvertebrates (the ‘critters’ that dwell at the bottom of a stream). An urban water quality project in the City of Decorah examines many of these same parameters. Water quality data are evaluated in the context of associated land use, and research results are shared with area landowners and City officials in order to provide information for decision-making and implementation of practices to improve water quality. We also present this research at regional and national conferences, including the annual Iowa Water Conference.
Investigating how bacteria sense and respond to their environment: Microbes play tremendously important roles in the natural world, serving as major contributors to the base of the food chain and for recycling nutrients for all life. Understanding how bacteria both sense and respond to their environment is essential to understanding how they perform their important roles. Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a gram negative bacterium that can be found universally in ocean and estuarine waters. This organism is also a major human pathogen in areas of the world where raw seafood is consumed. Our current research seeks to understand how this organism senses and responds to various metals in the environment, including calcium, magnesium, and iron. We have uncovered a variety of bacterial cell processes, behaviors, and gene activities that respond to varying levels of these metals. Ultimately, we hope to use this information to better understand how this bacterium functions in marine, estuarine, and human host environments.