Summer Research in Baack Lab

During the summer of 2021, several students had the opportunity to do research in the Biology Department. Cassidy Miller, Sitsandziwe Simelane, and Madeline Eppard all worked collaboratively on three different research projects in Dr. Eric Baack’s lab.

The first project these students worked on was estimating the genome size of reed canary grass, a grass species from Europe that is invasive in the United States and is now found throughout northeastern Iowa. Knowing the genome size can be important for both ecology and genetics. Plants with smaller genomes tend to have shorter life cycles, and so they might be more effective as weeds and invasive species. For genetics, the genome size is key to ensuring that you do enough sequencing to completely cover the genome without spending more than necessary. 

Unfortunately, a variety of factors make genome size estimates imperfect, such as compounds in plants interfering with flow cytometry stains. The team investigated whether processing the standard, which has a known genome size, together with the sample can control for this interference. They found that while it helped a great deal, there was still some error. Flow cytometry remains a fast and inexpensive method, but it can only give estimates of genome size rather than measurements.

The second project was testing for antibiotic resistance in bacteria living in the water around Decorah. These students took samples from several waterways around Decorah and tested for resistance to four concentrations of eight different antibiotics. Ultimately, these students found that many bacteria in Decorah’s waterways were resistant to multiple types of antibiotics, such as ampicillin, tetracycline, and streptomycin. This suggests that the global antibiotic resistance crisis is not only affecting health care facilities and large cities, but is also beginning to affect our local area.    

The third and final project that these students took on was trying to determine the species of Cryptosporidium, a waterborne parasite from fecal matter that causes illness in humans, that can be found in Decorah. While infections are usually resolved quickly in healthy adults, Cryptosporidium can cause severe illness in infants, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals. Since only two species of Cryptosporidium cause illness, knowing which species are present can indicate whether or not water is safe to drink. Additionally, species information can help identify the source of the Cryptosporidium contamination. These students attempted to use PCR to amplify a region of DNA in order to determine the species, but weren’t able to obtain conclusive results. 

While these students learned a lot about different lab techniques, they also learned about making connections. Miller said that collaborating and building friendships with other researchers is important. At the beginning of the summer, Miller, Simelane and Eppard had never worked together before. Simelane said that the three students were all a little concerned about working so closely with strangers for an entire summer. However, Simelane said that having these similar concerns helped them be conscientious and even helped them solidify friendships with one another. 

Not only did these students make connections within their research lab, but also made connections with other research labs. Every Thursday, the research groups at Luther would all come together to discuss their progress on their respective projects. Eppard said that these meetings allowed her to meet people she would have never met otherwise, which allowed her to make new connections with other students on campus at the time. 

Like any other research project, these students had to overcome several challenges throughout the summer. The three students all said that PCR analysis was one of the most challenging things they did over the summer. A complete PCR procedure takes one to two days to perform and includes preparing several solutions ahead of time. Eppard said that after spending a few days working on a PCR procedure, finding out it did not work felt “defeating”. 

Miller, Simelane and Eppard said that they had to constantly analyze and revise their PCR procedure in order to find out what went wrong and what needed to be changed for the next attempt, a problem that many researchers struggle with. While these students weren’t able to gain conclusive PCR results, Eppard said this experience helped her learn how to deal with setbacks.

Each student was asked what advice they would give to students considering a summer research experience. Miller said that research takes a lot of resilience. Even though an experiment might not work out in the way someone expected, she said that this “doesn’t mean that it (the research) is unimportant”. Additionally, Miller said that students should “keep an open mind”. Even if the research project is not in a student’s field of interest, Miller said that it can still be a good way to broaden their experiences, learn new techniques and expand their knowledge. 

Simelane said that students shouldn’t fear their professors. She encourages them to build relationships with their professors, since “good relationships can lead to opportunities”. Finally, Eppard said that while research can seem a little scary, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. Eppard said that, “as long as you apply yourself and make the best of your time, it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget.”

Eppard (front), Miller (back, left), and Simelane (back, right) work in the laminar flow hood while they inoculate plates for testing bacterial antibiotic resistance.