Science students balance research and studies

Whitney Clum

No one at Washburn can better identify with Thomas Edison’s famous quote than research students: “I have not failed, I’ve successfully discovered 10,000 things that won’t work.”

After either taking the required amount of classes or reaching upperclassmen status, students in biology and chemistry work with a professor so that they may fulfill their research requirements for their major.

Science students conducting their independent research projects will often spend much of their free time each day between classes to work in the labs.

“There’s a time you set up with your teacher to set up a protocol,” said Maluki Radford, junior molecular biology major. “On Thursdays, I go in after Physics, and I am there basically all day, usually past 5. You are going to be making agar (a gel commonly used in the lab), autoclaving this, checking on these samples– so it’s a credit hour. But it’s more than that if you actually want to get work done.”

Not all students approach their research in the same way or in the same time frame. Ashlee Herken, junior molecular biology major, spent a year on a project with the Honors Program before branching out and partnering with professors on their research.

“The first one I started with the Honors Program, working with Dr. Herbig,” Herken said. “I approached him and said ‘Hey I want to do an Honors project,’ and he said, ‘Oh, you mentioned magnetotaxis (bacteria that are able to swim or move toward a magnetic field).’ So I collected a sample from my pond and spent a year analyzing my pond water as well as water from lake Perry. After that entire year, I was successful in enriching my magnetotactic bacteria once, and they are extremely hard to culture. That was where the project ended. I am currently helping [Herbig] on his bacteriophage research, as well as working with Dr. Sadikot. She does a bioinformatics project which is partnered with Washington University at St. Louis.”

In general, there are two types of research. The first, most common type is when a student joins a pre-existing project spearheaded by a professor, where previous students have already done preliminary work to jumpstart the project.

In the second and less common type of research, a student will initiate a project with the help of a professor. According to Herken, this type of research requires sifting through a veritable mountain of scientific papers and videos in order to formulate a protocol. Students must then figure out how to perform steps that require equipment that the university may not possess.

“I’m currently working on naegleria fowleri (a brain eating amoeba) and trying to quantify that in a water sample by what we call real time, or PCR techniques,” said Radford. “You have absolutely no idea what you are doing,  just running [the experiments] because you’ve been told to, then finally that ‘Aha!’ moment of, ‘Oh my gosh, my education has brought me somewhere.’”

Outside of simply earning Washburn students their diplomas, research projects have had applications in the real world.

“With magnetotactic bacteria, the future applications in the medical field would be tumor research,” Herken said. “Apparently tumors have a really strong magnetic pull, so they would culture these bacteria, extract the magnets from them, purify the magnets and then inject you with them. Then you can expose them to a really fast rotating magnetic field, heat the tumor up and kill it without actually affecting any other part in your body.” 

Students’ research may also have beneficial implications for local water supplies.

“[The naegleria fowleri research will] allow [the EPA] to pinpoint what certain lakes have it, and then see how that’s involved in harmful algal blooms,” Radford said. “It’s allowing detection, identification and safety.”

Unique challenges of research aside, both Herken and Radford seem to agree that their different research projects have given them invaluable experiences.

“Washburn University is providing me with opportunities I would never get at other universities because they are so large,” said Herken. “Having two and a half years of research [under my belt] when I go to grad school, [other universities] can see I have these techniques, I’ve developed them and it works so well with critical thinking.”