CORVALLIS - Becky Cooper tracks anaerobic microbes from humans to oysters to discover how resistance to antibiotics can be transferred.
Kim Padilla traces patterns of climate change from clues deposited in an ancient pine.
Anne Taylor follows the trail of microbes through soil to measure the sustainability of agricultural practices.
Detectives in a bio-thriller? Perhaps. But even more remarkable, these are examples of projects accomplished start to finish by undergraduates at Oregon State University's BioResource Research program.
These up-and-coming scientists didn't wait to earn multiple degrees before launching their research careers.
"Students in this undergraduate program learn to solve real-world problems; they don't work from recipes," said Anita Azarenko, an OSU professor of horticulture and co-director of the program. Working one-on-one with a professor mentor, students identify a problem and, like detectives, find ways to solve it.
Cooper worked with her mentor, Kate Field, OSU microbiologist and co-director of the BioResources Research Program, to trace routes by which new antibiotic resistant bacteria could be formed. In a project recently featured at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, Cooper demonstrated how oysters filtering contaminated water could concentrate levels of bacteria and allow antibiotic resistance to transfer from one bacterial cell to another.
"Antibiotic resistance is a concern to public health," said Cooper, who now works at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. "This study suggests that even when antibiotics are in low concentrations, such as in water polluted with fecal matter, systems that filter water can concentrate bacteria and increase the chance of transferring antibiotic resistance."
"Becky is a good example of the sort of students we get in this program," said Field. "She's part of a cohort of critical thinkers who will go on to lead national research labs and provide solid research support to improve people's lives."
Another student, Kim Padilla, followed the trail of atmospheric change by studying the rings of a 350-year old tree. Padilla's mentor Kim Anderson, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology, knew of the fallen pine, and arranged for a slab to be delivered to her lab at the OSU campus.
Padilla chiseled apart the stone-hard rings and analyzed their chemical compositions. Trace elements deposited with each year of growth revealed a record of local and global environmental change that reached back to the mid-1600s.
Among many discoveries, Padilla's detective work uncovered evidence of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 that dumped acid rain on the Pacific Northwest, leaving chemical clues etched into the tree rings.
Padilla, whose study is published in the latest issue of Chemosphere, now works for an environmental testing lab in the Portland area.
"I appreciate the fact that my academic advisers took an active role in my work and helped me develop valuable skills necessary for employment," Padilla said. Another student, Anne Taylor, started her undergraduate career after raising four children.
"When I was ready to go back to school, I looked for a program that would make me employable," she said. "The BioResources Research program had immediate applicability."
With the help of her mentor, Richard Dick, professor in OSU's Crop and Soil Science, Taylor researched ways to diagnose the health of soil by following chemical clues left by soil-borne bacteria and fungi.
"Farmers and foresters need a way to measure the effect they are having on the soil," said Taylor. She correlated land management practices with enzyme "fingerprints" of beneficial microbes to measure the health and quality of soil. Following graduation, Taylor earned her masters' degree in Environmental Soil Science, and is now working as a researcher in OSU's Microbial Observatory.