Microbiology faculty provide rich research opportunities in the health sciences for undergrads

Written by Hannah Morrison and Rachel Zurilla, CAS communications interns

The Department of Microbiology offers numerous research opportunities to undergraduates looking for experiences outside the classroom that will expand their knowledge and lab skills.

"Miami has recently made a big push in healthcare education, including planning a new health sciences building on the Oxford campus," said Luis Actis, professor and chair of microbiology. "Faculty here in the Department of Microbiology provide many kinds of research opportunities to help our students increase their knowledge and hands-on experiences beyond the classroom setting as they prepare themselves for health science careers."

Four examples of ongoing microbiology faculty research projects that involve undergrads are described below.

The Global Nitrogen Cycle in Freshwater Systems

Annette Bollmann goes over some lab procedures with students.

Annette Bollmann, an associate professor, studies and conducts research on the global nitrogen cycle, specifically on organisms which live in freshwater systems. This research is important because the process of nitrification converts ammonium to nitrate, which is important to waste water treatment plants and has impacts on soil. [See the April 2019 Miami press release Microbial "neighbors" improve ammonia removal in wastewater.]

"One of the major questions we are asking is how these freshwater organisms are impacted by their friends [in the same freshwater system] and how they impact them," said Bollmann.

Bollmann acquires samples from local and regional freshwater lakes and then, in her lab, studies the microorganisms to:

  • increase the ability to manipulate microbial communities to function more efficiently, such as those in wastewater plants to improve ammonia removal
  • educate students on the importance of microbial communities and to raise awareness and urgency about water quality

Bollmann tries to involve undergraduate students in her research as much as possible. Typically, students come in during their 2nd year, learn how the lab works and how to follow the methods, and then essentially design the project they want to work on. In their 3rd year, students work with Bollmann or a graduate student on their project, and by their 4th year they typically become fairly independent.

"Student projects are usually close to what one of us is doing in the lab, so they're kind of like a sub-project," she said.

Cardiovascular Health and Greenhouse Gases

D.J. Ferguson works with a student in the lab.

Associate professor D.J. Ferguson is currently in the midst of researching the importance of quaternary amines in regards to both environmental and health importance and functions. Quaternary amines are abundant compounds found in the environment as well as in common foods such as red meat and eggs.

Ferguson described the primary foci of his research as having two points:

  • to gain more insight about methanogens, organisms that make methane for metabolism, that use the quaternary amines for food. "This provides insight into how the methane can possibly be produced, a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2," he said.
  • to learn more about the bacteria that break down quaternary amines in the gut. When quaternary amines are consumed by certain bacteria in the gut the risk of developing heart disease is heightened, however other bacteria may actually lessen our risk of heart disease.

"We are trying to find organisms from the gut that are using quaternary amines and how they do it," said Ferguson.

Ferguson usually has three to four undergraduate student research assistants, who are paired with graduate students in order to get a quality learning experience in the lab.

"Undergrads in my lab see a practical application for what they are learning in class," Ferguson said.

Students working with Ferguson also get the opportunity to present their research at the Undergraduate Research Forum. Ferguson is also the president of the Ohio Branch of the American Society for Microbiology, and his students get to present their research at the annual meeting in Ohio.

"Their experiences giving local and state research presentations prepares them to present nationally," Ferguson said.

Tiny Plants and Animals Living on Earth's Iciest Continent

Rachel Morgan-Kiss with some of her students

Another area of study within the Department of Microbiology includes possible undergraduate research opportunities in McMurdo Dry Valleys, a polar desert on the coast of east Antarctica.

"Even though it is some of the last pristine land, it still experiences climate change and is highly sensitive to small environmental changes," explained associate professor Rachael Morgan-Kiss. Earlier this year, she and assistant professor Xin Wang received a $750,000 research grant from the Department of Energy.

Morgan-Kiss outlined two of the main foci of her research:

  • the study of microbial communities living in perennially ice-covered lakes in Antarctica
  • isolating these organisms for directed studies under lab-controlled conditions

"My main objectives are to evaluate the adaptations that these organisms undergo to survive the extreme conditions of the Antarctic environment and gain a greater understanding in regards to how we can use these adaptations in helpful ways for society," she said.

One of Morgan-Kiss's interesting findings is that algae could be used to produce biodiesel, since they naturally accumulate high levels.

"There are a lot of biotechnical aspects of these organisms left unexplored," Morgan-Kiss said.

She has offered research opportunities for over 30 undergraduate students over the years. In some cases, they have even been able to accompany Morgan-Kiss on her fieldwork visits to Antarctica to collect data samples.

Immune Responses within the Human Body

Tim Wilson reviews some research results with a student.

The Department of Microbiology has an area of research devoted to the molecular basis of immune responses within the human body. Assistant professor Tim Wilson focuses on two specific facets of this research:

  • antiviral immunity, specifically what one protein called SLAM family member 9 (SLAMF9) does to regulate the immune response to viruses
  • a molecule called Fc Receptor-like 1 (FCRL1), which is expressed on B cells, the cells that make antibodies when someone gets an infection or a vaccine

"We then look at how that molecule controls whether B cells are going to be activated to make antibodies or maybe prevent them from producing antibodies," Wilson said.

In some cases, a memory cell — a type of cell that's activated once you've already seen an infection — is formed. Essentially, Wilson studies both how the body responds once it senses that there's a virus present and how the human body makes antibodies in response to immunization or infection.

"We've often heard that you can't get the same infection twice," Wilson said. "Part of the reason for that is you develop what we call immunological memory, where a whole group of cells will split off and sit in the bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes and just wait until the next time it comes across that infection again and then activate."

Wilson and the students in his lab then examine how these cells signal, i.e., how they know whether to go make antibodies, become a memory cell, or recognize that they shouldn't react at all because this 'thing' they are recognizing is already part of their own cells.

"We try to get undergraduates involved in everything we do, for the most part," said Wilson.

Wilson typically has between three and four undergraduate students in his lab, and he prefers to start them in their second year so they have enough time to invest in the research.

More Information

The Department of Microbiology hopes to include as many undergraduate students in its research as possible. Students should get started by asking a professor about working in the lab. Labs often fit within the student’s schedule and offer a lot of exploration with regards to open questions and discovery.

"The opportunities for topics to research are endless, and our faculty do their best to support students' interests," said Actis. "Conducting research as an undergraduate gives students the opportunity to experience their field of study hands-on."

Given Miami's recent push in healthcare education, the opportunities for students to get involved are only growing. Most professors prefer their students to come into their lab as a second-year student, so ask early!

Learn more about ongoing research projects in the Department of Microbiology: