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JSC Student Research Chosen for Council on Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill Event

Council on Undergraduate Research Chooses JSC

March 14, 2011

Three seniors at Johnson State College – two of them the first in their families to attend college – are heading to Capitol Hill to present their research to members of Congress.

The students – Ben Chaucer of Burlington, Danielle Gregoire of Poultney, and Autumn Santor of Alburg – were selected by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) to participate in the annual “Posters on the Hill” event April 13. They are the only students from Vermont invited to share their research at the prestigious event along with their supervising professors, Dr. Elizabeth Dolci and Dr. Anjanette Watson.

“We feel pretty good about it,” says Dolci, matter-of-factly. “The Council received more than 700 applications nationwide and accepted only 74, and ours was the only project accepted from nine Vermont submissions.” (The other eight came from the University of Vermont, Middlebury College, Norwich University and St. Michael’s College.) In addition to the April event in Washington, the group will present at the annual meeting of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at Ithaca College on March 31.

Started in June 2010 with the support of the Vermont Genetics Network, the research at JSC focuses on microorganisms in a pond at the defunct Vermont Asbestos Group (VAG) mine in Eden. The students’ mission: to determine whether any bacteria exist in this harsh environment (they do), identify the bacteria via DNA sequencing, and study how the bacteria interact with the asbestos, the toxic metals and the alkaline pH.

While on Capitol Hill, the students plan to meet with Vermont’s congressional delegation – Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch – to discuss how their data can be used to “guide development of public policy and protocols for maintenance of asbestos-contaminated sites.” But their research has the potential to change scientific thinking about a range of human health topics as well, such as how to help the body fight off infection.

So far Chaucer, Gregoire and Santor have identified 50 microorganisms at the site. “These are not your everyday bacteria,” explains Dolci. “These are ‘extremophiles’ – organisms that thrive in and may even require extreme conditions that are detrimental to most life on Earth, like what you’d find on Mars.” Some of them have been found only in the Arctic before now, she adds.

“What are they doing here?” Dolci asks. “Are they modifying the asbestos, releasing it into the environment, or doing something else altogether? Maybe we can identify genes that are helping to metabolize heavy metals, and we’ll learn that it’s better to leave them alone.”

As the students wrote in their submission to CUR, “The fate of our species is intrinsically linked to that of our bacterial neighbors.”

The research at JSC capitalizes on advances in microbiology and technology that make it possible to examine our ecosystem at its smallest, most basic level: bacteria. “Everything starts with bacteria – they’re at the base of the food chain,” Dolci explains. “And for the past 10 years, when it became possible to extract and sequence bacterial DNA, there’s been a major push to categorize microorganisms – especially extremophiles.”

As a state-certified “asbestos site inspector,” Dolci is authorized to visit the VAG site when accompanied by state personnel, and she goes there periodically to collect water samples. Back at the JSC microbiology lab, the three students isolate the bacteria from the water and prepare them for DNA extraction and sequencing at UVM. Once the genetic code is determined, they search for a match through “GenBank,” a comprehensive database maintained by the National Institutes of Health of all publicly available DNA sequences.

The research project has been a “transformative experience” for all three students, and particularly for biology majors Gregoire and Santor, who are the first in their families to attend college, Dolci says. “They have really blossomed through this experience – they’ve gained confidence that carries over all aspects of their lives, including their other coursework, and they’ve set their career ambitions higher as well.”

As Gregoire puts it, “Growing up in a family in which no one attended college, I had to motivate myself to work harder. Initially I thought I would go on to become a biology teacher, but now my goal is to go to graduate school for microbiology. After obtaining my master’s degree, I hope to work in a lab specializing in microbial pathogenesis.”

Santor says that thanks to her microbiology work at JSC, “My life plans have changed. I now plan to purse a master’s degree in microbiology, after which I plan to work in immunology and pathology in a lab-based setting.”

For Chaucer, a double-major in health sciences and in wellness and alternative medicine at JSC, the experience has confirmed his desire to become a doctor – a path he chose after seeing his uncle die of cancer. “It’s become clear that research will also be an integral part of my professional life,” he says. After graduating this spring, he plans to attend combined M.D/Ph.D. program. His ultimate goal, he says, is to “practice medicine internationally, tracking infectious disease and epidemiological outbreaks.”