Undergraduate Research Rewarding to Both Faculty and Students
By Dr. Ed Levri, Penn State Altoona Associate Professor of Biology
A few years ago, a student approached me about becoming involved with research in my lab. I had, at the time, three other students, and I was concerned that I would not have enough time for a fourth. It often takes quite a bit of my time to train them in techniques we use in my lab.
My initial feeling was to say, “I’m sorry, no. I just don’t have the time this semester.” But I always have a difficult time saying “no” to students who want to work in my lab, and there seemed to be something special about this student.
Rachel Bilka began working in my lab early in her sophomore year. From her work in one of my classes, I knew she was an above-average student. She turned out to be a very special undergraduate researcher.
Rachel was keenly interested in science and was a self-starter. She would be pointed in a direction and then take a project over and develop it beyond my original expectations. Initially, her work involved sorting through samples of sediment taken from lakes Huron and St. Clair looking for the invasive New Zealand mud snail.
Eventually, Rachel wrote her own grant proposal to collaborate with me and a colleague at the University of Wyoming, where she spent a summer working on two different projects examining the invasive potential of the snail. When she returned, she developed her own hypotheses to test, and performed an experiment that demonstrated that the snails grow at a faster rate on a diet available in a stream than one available in a lake. Today, Rachel is employed by a medical testing laboratory. She plans to eventually pursue a graduate degree in ecology.
These results help explain why the New Zealand mud snail has spread so rapidly in the rivers and streams of the western United States while the rate of spread has been much slower in the Great Lakes.
We are currently adding the finishing touches to a manuscript describing these results for publication. The results of Rachel’s three years of work in my lab have been co-authorship on one published paper, one paper currently submitted for publication, and three papers that we are currently preparing for submission (she will be first author of two of these).
Students like Rachel provide me with motivation for my work both as a scientist and a teacher.
I have always been fascinated by the intricacies of ecological interactions. My background is in studying the influence of parasites and predators on the behavior of individuals.
Much of my work has looked at the interaction between the New Zealand mud snail and its worm parasite. This same snail species is also a world-wide invader causing numerous ecological problems in Europe and North America as well as elsewhere. Research in this area has always been important to me, yet my real love is teaching, both in the classroom and in the laboratory.
I teach a number of different courses at Penn State Altoona, ranging from introductory biology and environmental studies to upper level courses such as Invertebrate Zoology, Evolution, the Ecology of Infectious Disease, and the Ecology of Lakes and Streams.
My favorite part of my job at Penn State Altoona is combining teaching and research by including undergraduate students in my research program. Since starting my position at the college in the fall of 2001, I have had over forty undergraduate students work in my lab. Their hard work has led to over thirty student presentations at regional, national, and international scientific meetings, as well as nine scientific publications with student co-authors.
Projects that students have been involved with range from the study of the influence of parasites and predators on the behavior of host organisms to the study of an invasive snail in the Great Lakes regions to the influence of deer herbivory on the reproductive success of our state flower, the mountain laurel.
A few years back, I was eligible for my first sabbatical leave. I had recently found out that Andrew Read, one of the foremost researchers in the field of infectious disease ecology and evolution, had just taken a position at University Park as the head of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.
With my background in parasite ecology, I asked Andrew if he would be interested in collaborating on a project in his lab for my sabbatical. He was very interested, and, to supplement the sabbatical, I applied for the Penn State Collaborative Research Fellowship for the summer of 2009.
The Collaborative Research Fellowship is designed to provide modest monies for time and research supplies to establish collaborations between non-University Park Penn State faculty and research faculty at University Park. I was fortunate to earn the fellowship, which allowed me to work in Andrew’s lab from May to December of 2009.
Andrew’s lab studies the evolution of malarial parasites; more specifically, how malarial parasites evolve to resist the drugs that we use to treat malarial patients. Historically, malarial parasites evolve resistance to the drugs used to treat them fairly rapidly, with resistant strains evolving usually within a few years after the drug is introduced.
Andrew’s lab focuses, in part, on developing treatments that reduce the rate of drug resistance evolution so that these drugs may be effective for a longer period of time, if not indefinitely. One thing that has recently been discovered is that people infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) are more likely to harbor antimalarial drug-resistant strains of malaria than malaria patients not infected with HIV.
We decided to do a pilot experiment to try to understand why HIV infection would lead to more resistance in malarial parasites. To perform the experiment, we used mice that can be infected with rodent malaria and infected them with two strains of malaria (one known to be resistant to an antimalarial drug and one known to be susceptible).
We also had some mice that were immune-compromised and others that were not. The results from the work indicated that, in some cases, a lack of an immune system coupled with the use of antimalarial drugs does lead to natural selection for resistance to the drugs within the host, more so in immune-compromised individuals than individuals with intact immune systems. These results have led us to propose further experiments, and we hope that it will eventually lead to treatments of malaria that more effectively control the evolution of antimalarial drug resistance.
I hope to continue working to investigate questions regarding the ecology of parasitism and the ecological consequences of invasive species. As long as students like Rachel keep knocking on my door, these efforts will, I’m sure, be more successful and more rewarding.
Ed Levri is co-coordinator of the Biology degree program at Penn State Altoona. He received his Ph. D in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at Indiana University-Bloomington in 1997. He has been teaching and conducting research at Penn State Altoona since 2001. Levri was Penn State Altoona’s first recipient of Penn State’s Collaborative Research Fellowship.