Research Feature: 2008 SBI Interns Gain
Hands-on Research Experience

In the quiet of summer campus, sixteen undergraduates are getting a hands-on look at research through the 2008 Subsurface Biosphere Undergraduate Internship Program.  The students’ work is diverse – from experiments with algae that could one day produce a “green” energy source to studies of microbes that break down contaminants in groundwater.  The program’s unifying theme is to encourage students, particularly those from historically underrepresented groups, to pursue graduate study and a career in science or engineering by giving them first-hand experience conducting original research.

Mei Lee Ling works in Roger Ely's biological engineering lab.

SBI intern Mei Lee Lin works with cyanobacteria in Roger Ely's biological engineering laboratory.

The program is in its third year and is sponsored by the Subsurface Biosphere Initiative (SBI), one of six research programs funded by OSU in 2005 to develop university expertise in emerging interdisciplinary fields.  The SBI brings together faculty from six colleges and focuses on the world of microbes that live underground in soil, groundwater, and rock.  Recent research shows that microbes are abundant in these settings and new molecular biology techniques now make it possible to study the ecology and potential applications of these hidden communities.

A highlight for many of the interns is the chance for hands-on experience with cutting-edge molecular biology techniques. “We set up the projects so that the interns will learn techniques and gain practice using instrumentation that is becoming standard in any type of microbiology or biochemistry work,” says Hatem Mohamed, a faculty research assistant in Biological and Ecological Engineering and lab supervisor for Mei Lee Ling and China Lim, two interns working in professor Roger Ely’s biological engineering laboratory.  Both Mei Lee and China are enthusiastic when they describe their projects, “I’m always glad to come to the lab in the morning,” says China.  “It makes a big difference to work with things hands on.”  Part of Mei Lee’s project involves gel electrophoresis, a technique used to separate molecules of DNA. “We learned about this in class but now we’re really getting to see what its like,” says China.

Mei Lee and China are working with cyanobacteria, an organism found in many different habitats from the open ocean to soils.  Under the right conditions, cyanobacteria can produce hydrogen, and Roger Ely's team is working to increase this hydrogen production to support the development of renewable, solar-based energy systems. China’s work focuses on identifying optimal growing conditions for the bacteria.  She has run a series of experiments where she measures how hydrogen production changes as cultures are given more or less iron.  Mei Lee’s work involves "knocking out" a specific gene to create a mutant strain of cyanobacteria that can be used in future experiments.

The interns are also getting experience with research design. Priscilla Woolverton is a  junior interning with professors Maria Dragila and Markus Kleber in the Crop and Soil Science department.  She is setting up soil physics experiments on an agricultural soil from eastern Oregon. Ultimately the team’s research is aimed at understanding why the soil has lost its ability to absorb irrigation water.  Priscilla says, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in the lab. It’s not like a class where the experiment has already been worked out.  Instead there is a lot of trial and error. I can’t get attached to a method or hypothesis or anything because every week it changes.”

Kristin Egan works in the environmental engineering lab.

Kristin Egan returned to intern in the environmental engineering laboratory after working there as a high school student in the Saturday Academy apprenticeship program.

Across campus, Katie Powers and Amanda Schwartz, both interns with professor Rick Colwell in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, are beginning the analysis phase of their projects.  They are learning a statistical technique that will help them determine how their microbial samples, taken from drill cores of deep subsurface sediments, are related to each other and to the physical and chemical characteristics of the sediments.  Their samples are from methane hydrates – methane locked in ice that forms in the low temperature and high pressure conditions of deep sea sediments and permafrost.  Methane hydrates are a potential new energy source, but little is known about their extent or how they form.  Katie and Amanda’s work is part of a larger project within the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences to evaluate the physical and biological characteristics of methane hydrates from different locations around the world.

The interns come from a variety of different backgrounds with majors in topics such as microbiology, chemical engineering and soil science. Most will be seniors at OSU this fall but four are visitors from other universities and colleges. Kristin Egan is a sophomore from Brigham Young University.  She interned in the OSU Environmental Engineering lab as a high school student in the Saturday Academy ASE apprenticeship program.  She is back this summer working with environmental engineering post doctoral researcher Tyler Radniecki, and is carrying out experiments to determine the effect of different hydrocarbons on Nitrosomonas Europea, a bacteria used to remove nitrogen during wastewater treatment.  She works in the lab with Dusty Berggren, an SBI intern who will enter the OSU environmental engineering Ph.D. program in the fall.

The interns’ goals for the future range from medical school to agricultural work to graduate study at OSU.  Many express appreciation for their internship experience and how it will inform their future career choices.  Mei Lee Ling, one of the interns in Roger Ely’s lab, is a native of Malaysia and says, “Coming from a developing country, I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to work on my own research. It is almost impossible to have a chance like this back in my own country. I hope my experience will encourage more students, especially those from developing countries, to work on a research project.”

On September 3, SBI interns will present summaries of their research to each other and interested faculty and students -- please contact Garrett Jones if you would like to receive more information about this event.