Tuesday, April 23, 2024

UTSA biology students engage in new innovative research experiences

UTSA biology students engage in new innovative research experiences

MARCH 21, 2022 — UTSA undergraduate students in the College of Sciences’ (COS) Department of Integrative Biology will soon have access to a host of new research opportunities as part of its recent Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) partnerships.

CUREs offer several key features that traditional lab and field courses may lack, such as having students conduct original research that is of interest to stakeholders outside of the classroom and ensuring that students are involved in the iterative research process, repeatedly problem-solving and troubleshooting as needed and generating new questions and research directions.

Beginning fall 2022, biology students will contribute to cutting-edge research in collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Genomics Education Partnership and the Tiny Earth Antibiotic Discovery Network. These new partnerships will offer additional research opportunities for students in the areas of genomics, microbiology and bioinformatics. 

“The initiative supports one of the department’s missions of promoting research experiences for undergraduate students.”

The integrative biology department has partnered with these national programs to offer early research experiences within its existing Sophomore Biology Research Initiative (SBRI). SBRI is a two-semester, course-based research program that connects undergraduate students with opportunities that provide them with early research experience, and also count as academic course credits.

“The initiative supports one of the department’s missions of promoting research experiences for undergraduate students,” said Department Chair Janis Bush. “This program is part of our larger efforts to build our students’ science identities and to promote a sense of belonging for our students as they learn to become scientists.”

In addition to earning class credit through experiential learning, SBRI students will become familiar with the research process, learn a variety of marketable laboratory skills and make research contributions to scientific fields ranging from genomics to ecology.

“Research indicates that students participating in CURE programs such as these are more likely to complete their science degrees and pursue research-related careers,” said Mariah Hopkins, CUREs director and associate professor of instruction for the integrative biology department. “They are also more likely to identify as scientists, express greater confidence in their academic abilities, and report greater engagement in their degree programs.” 

Students explore research topics of their interest that align with their career plans. These research experiences will include everything from uncovering novel viruses, decoding genetic pathways, discovering new sources of antibiotics and more. Among the research opportunities open for students to gain experience in is an international effort focused on newly discovered viruses.

UTSA joined HHMI’s Science Education Alliance last fall and will begin offering its SEA PHAGES program during the 2022-23 academic year. Students in this program will isolate and characterize newly discovered bacteriophages. Bacteriophages, a type of virus that infects and replicates in bacteria, serve as biocontrol agents in agriculture and provide potential alternatives to antibiotics for antibiotic resistant bacterial strains.

UTSA students will assist in an international effort to find and characterize new bacteriophages, while also gaining crucial research experience in microbiology and genomics.

Another opportunity for students is to participate in collaborative research with the Genomics Education Partnership. The GEP is a nationwide partnership of faculty at over 100 colleges and universities focused on providing underrepresented students with genomics and bioinformatics research experiences.

Students participating in this program will conduct new gene annotations that will help scientists understand the evolution of insulin pathways, for example. This program has a successful track record of providing students with opportunities to become co-authors on scientific publications.

Through a partnership with the Tiny Earth Antibiotic Discovery Network, biology students will participate in an international effort to “student-source” antibiotic discovery. According to the World Health Organization, the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the biggest threats today to both global health and food security.

For more information about these programs, contact Mariah Hopkins.

As part of a larger SBRI course on soil microbial diversity, UTSA students will join the international effort to find new antibiotic compounds by focusing on those produced by microbial communities in soils.

 As one of the most productive research communities at UTSA, the College of Sciences plays a significant role in the university’s discovery enterprise and  designation as a Tier One institution. These research collaborations are part of the college’s efforts to develop engaging scientific curriculum that will equip future scientists and professionals with the skills they need to address society’s greatest challenges.

Ryan Schoensee and Mariah Hopkins

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