By Callie Ewing, BA '03 MH '22
The University of Dallas has received a $100,000 grant from the Hillcrest Foundation to upgrade the Biology Department’s laboratory equipment and prepare the growing number of science majors for postgraduate research and education in STEM fields.
Since 2011, enrollment in biology and biochemistry majors at UD has increased by 70% and 118%, respectively. All undergraduate science students have the opportunity to undertake an undergraduate research project and, because of the research experience in which they engage, UD students have a long, successful history of acceptance into both health-related professional schools and highly competitive summer research programs. Increasingly, however, the equipment used for on-campus research projects had become outdated or in need of repair.
“We were no longer training and teaching our students with modern technology,” explained Associate Professor and Chair of Biology William Cody, Ph.D. This is where the Hillcrest Foundation grant came in. The new equipment purchased with the aid of the grant includes large-scale capital pieces whose acquisition would have been beyond the capacity of the department budget. One such piece is the Drosophila incubator, which will be used by three different faculty members in their research, to sustain the Drosophila flies that serve as an infection model in Cody’s lab, a neuroscience model in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Drew Stenesen, Ph.D., and an ecology model in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Deanna Soper, Ph.D.
As Cody explained, the Biology Department has up to this point made do and pieced together the maintenance of these flies and their corresponding projects, but now will have the incubator to facilitate this research, including making it easier to incorporate students into the work.
Additionally, a new TriGas CO2 incubator will replace one that broke in the tissue culture lab a couple of years ago. This incubator regulates oxygen levels and will allow students and faculty to grow cell lines and tissue cultures to investigate human lung diseases such as the effects of vaping.
“We’re getting classroom-use items that will expand our ability to work with students — this will mean less demos and more hands on for everybody,” said Cody. “We’ve been sharing one or two pieces of equipment between nine different lab courses, which is a big deal when you get to different points in a lab, like using a centrifuge, and everyone has to line up and wait their turn.
“When we can get equipment like that in the hands of freshmen, they can do more, and they are better prepared to participate in research as sophomores and juniors,” he added. “We’re trying to get students hands on with things sooner and expand their research capability in the lab.”
In Stenesen’s lab, the Drosophila incubator will maintain and manipulate the fly life cycle so that students are able to study physiological responses of flies at different stages within a semester-based lab course. Students are investigating a mutation in pain reception, using the Drosophila flies to monitor the impact of genetic and cellular alterations on circuit function.
“When you can bring research-caliber equipment into the classroom and have a small equipment-to-student ratio, it excels the students’ research comfort level with research in a research course or in an actual research setting,” said Stenesen. “Because we’re buying multiple pieces of a certain type of equipment, instead of the whole class sharing one or two pieces, now each pair gets one — it’s much more hands on. Now everyone who takes General Biology will be better prepared to enter into a research experience if that’s what they’re interested in, so it’s really opening that door for everyone. We all want everyone graduating with a biology degree to have research-caliber experience.”
Meanwhile, in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Sunny Scobell, Ph.D., she and her students work with hormone analysis, using the plate reader and PH meter to do a large amount of solutions chemistry.
Scobell said the grant will allow the department to obtain common-use equipment that is essential for her research. “In my advanced physiology course, we can walk students through hormone analysis and get hands-on experience to interest them in further research,” she explained.
One aspect of working at UD that greatly appealed to Scobell was that even though it is a small university with a small biology department, the quality of the research is on par with that of larger universities.
“This doesn’t happen in typical liberal arts colleges,” she said. “I love that my colleagues are interested in doing cutting-edge research at an undergraduate institution with undergraduates. I was actually impressed with the level of equipment when I first came to UD, but we needed more, and it’s really expensive. I can’t do hormone analysis without that equipment, but having it makes UD the perfect fit for me. I knew I didn’t want to go to a Research I institution and become part of that publish-or-perish world. I knew what I wanted to do with my research program and knew I could do it with undergraduates.”
The biology faculty will appreciate having a core facility where they can all work with equipment together, because many of their research interests overlap.
“I like this idea that we operate as a core facility,” said Stenesen. “All of us have experience with R-I institutes where each individual lab would have this equipment, and the redundancy and the wastefulness of that kind of model is not how we’re using this grant. All of us will have access to all of it. This is truly the department’s equipment list, and everyone will use it at some point, either in the classroom or in their research.”
The department plans to reorganize this summer to create this core facility with new equipment purchased with the grant. This type of arrangement creates further opportunities for faculty and student collaboration and for students to learn from each other while interacting and using the equipment for different projects in a common space. Having this equipment and this type of collaborative space also indirectly assists with faculty recruitment, as Cody explained.
“It will attract faculty who do want to be at an undergraduate institution but absolutely want to do cutting-edge research,” he said.
“When I came to UD, I could envision everything I wanted to do and a bit of an expansion,” added Scobell. “Collaborations were clear right from the start, and I could see what I could do with my research program here.”
“Students come in and expect to do the scientific method like it’s a cookbook,” said Scobell. “The real experience of doing research is that you try something and it doesn’t work, so you tweak it and try it again. It’s messy. Until students do science, they don’t understand how messy it is. There’s such value in understanding the process before they leave us. Some students won’t ever get back to research in their careers, and they’ll go out and do big and important things, and having that level of scientific literacy, understanding how science is truly done and having that critical lens, is really important for modern times.”
Beyond learning the technical aspects and techniques of research projects, students learn how to develop research questions and design experiments. UD does not have a graduate or postdoctoral program, so students receive direct mentorship from faculty in the laboratory and have to make real intellectual contributions to the projects. These students receive authorships on publications and regularly present posters and give talks at conferences, where they frequently receive awards and honors. This exposure is key for students from a small liberal arts university.
“I know the power of what introducing students to scientific research at this level means to them in their careers, whether they’re going into grad school or med school,” said Scobell, who did not have the opportunity for high-level research as an undergraduate and found herself at a disadvantage when she went to graduate school. “It also makes for better doctors, better veterinarians, better dentists, if they are aware of the research that is going into the practices they are being taught.”
“It also leads to better K-12 education,” added Cody. “You have STEM teachers who have experience in an actual research lab, as opposed to just reading about it in a book.”
Scobell reinforced this need. When she was in graduate school, she and other doctoral students went into a middle school through a partnership program to train science teachers how to use microscopes, an opportunity these teachers had never had.
Research exposure is also important, as Cody explained, because it enables students to be able to read academic journals with critical eyes rather than simply accepting what an author says. They can evaluate the controls, consider whether the experiment was adequate and how they would have set it up or liked to see it set up, and so on. They can determine which sorts of questions should be asked based on the outcome of an experiment or which questions might need to be re-asked because of new data.
“We’ve got to get them to the point where they’re comfortable doing that or feel that they have the agency to do that,” said Cody. “We really want everybody leaving here with that, and I think hands-on exposure is the way to get there.”
In 2019, UD received a highly competitive $300,000 grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation and, in 2020, UD received a $85,000 grant from the Catholic Foundation toward a total $900,000 renovation budget. These grants are essential for realizing UD’s goal of state-of-the-art research.
“Science majors need to do science, and we need equipment to do that,” said Cody. “It gives our students competency and confidence, coming from a small school, to be able to go into a lab, during summer research or in grad school, and already know how to do this stuff. It will help them not just hit the ground running but know that yes, they belong there and have the background to be successful.”