Thursday, February 21, 2008

Graduate student begins novel research with award

By Courtney Westlake

As if balancing graduate level class work, a teaching assistantship and raising her five-year-old daughter isn’t enough, biology graduate student Ryan Roy will soon be putting her knowledge to the test through a novel investigation in microbiology.

Roy was recently named the recipient of a Grants-In-Aid of Research Award from Sigma Xi, a prestigious scientific research society. The Sigma Xi Grant-in-Aid of Research program has a highly competitive application process, and only approximately 20 percent of applicants receive any level of funding, said Dr. Mike Lemke, professor of biology at UIS.

"Sigma Xi is something that Dr. Lemke always encourages us to apply for," Roy said. "There are two opportunities a year, and I think the most money you can get is $1,000. It just happened to work for me this time; I was excited."

Though Roy has an undergraduate degree in math, she discovered a new interest in the field of biology while working in a hospital biology lab. After taking a few classes at UIS, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in biology.

Now in her second year as a grad student, Roy is focusing her research on simulating natural chemical (reduction - oxidation) conditions in the laboratory and assessing parts of the microbial community that may be enriched under different redox potential.

The rationale for Ryan's work is based on the fact that many conditions have been used to culture bacteria through simulating natural environment gradients, although cultured bacteria rarely exceeds one percent of the environmental assemblage. Culturing is important to the field of microbiology because it is the basis for the naming of new species, revealing the functional role in the environment and adding definition to unknown DNA sequence in databases, Lemke said.

"You can see (redox potential) in the soil, water and sediment, how it is a gradient and runs from a very positive redox potential to a very negative redox potential," Roy said. "But they don't usually use that as a culturing parameter for bacteria, so I'm just going to take what we know from nature that exists and try to use that to culture more bacteria because we don't have very many culturable bacteria."

By increasing culturability of environmental samples, more studies can follow on the isolation of novel cultured bacteria to name bacterial species and explain the bacterial function within their environments. Roy will begin her work probably within a month or so, she said.

"I’m waiting to get a couple of things in, like a redox probe, and trying to get organized right now," she said. "Hopefully it won't take too long to actually run experiment, and hopefully it will run smoothly. It shouldn't be too expensive of a project to run."

She is excited to know that she doesn’t need to worry about finding the funds to run her project now, though, thanks to the Sigma Xi Grants-In-Aid of Research Award.

"It's a little bit of relief just to know have some money I can use and not worry about ordering something if I need it for my research," she said. "It’s nice for the lab; just to have extra awards under Dr. Lemke's belt is good for him and good for the lab in the future. The more things you win, more things you can get, so hopefully it means something for the lab."