As part of the Small World Initiative international research project to discover new antibiotics, NSU students are working with Biology Professors Aarti Raja and Julie Torruellas Garcia to discover and research new strains of bacteria with antibacterial properties.
The Small World Initiative originated from Yale University in 2012 and, according to their website, aims “to encourage students to pursue careers in science through real-world applicable laboratory and field research in introductory courses,” as well as to educate students on the lack of effective antibiotics. The project is currently being worked on at 109 schools of higher education throughout the world.
Raja, an assistant professor at the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, said that the idea of the initiative was to come up with a program where undergraduate students could be involved in research and to address the global concern of limited antibiotics.
“Since we don’t have a lot of antibiotics out there, one of the things that they thought of was, ‘well, we need to go find more antibiotics.’ Well, as luck would have it, the majority of the antibiotics out there, I think about two-thirds of the antibiotics we have out there today, are made by microorganisms that are found in the soil.”
The initiative is an ongoing project, but as part of Raja and Garcia’s classes, which Raja brought to campus in 2014, students are only required to take part in the project for the semester in which they are enrolled. Students must collect soil samples from various areas in South Florida, analyze the soil for microorganisms in the lab and then grow found bacteria in the lab to find if it carries antibacterial characteristics. Each student is expected to keep up with a lab report explaining their methods, research and findings to submit by the end of the course. If, by the end of the semester, a student discovers a new microorganism or wants to continue research, Raja offers them the opportunity to do so as part of an independent study.
Frank Hiffernan, senior biology major, said, “A lot of modern medicines and phenomena that we have today are naturally based, and now we have the chance to kind of see them as we go.”
One student at another university found a new microorganism that was producing an antibiotic, and now it’s in the process of being marketed.
Morgan Quarles, junior biology major, is a student in Raja’s microbiology class and has located seven bacteria with antibacterial properties.
“I could have potentially discovered a new antibiotic that can be used to help a lot of people fight off different bacterial infections. It’s really awesome,” she said.
Raja said that not every undergraduate has the opportunity to engage in research.
“With this kind of a project, you get the feel for research because you get to start working on something on day one in the classroom,” Raja said. “We don’t want students to memorize a bunch of things; we want them to put it into practice. Once it’s put into practice, it sinks in more, and they understand better.”
Ezana Assefa, senior biology major, said that one of the most important things he’s taken away from the project is understanding how science can be broken down and applied on students’ levels.
“A lot of labs are already ordered and everything is textual with the same results over and over again. With this project, it took a completely different spin and made it an actual experiment that each student was able to make their own. Not even the professor knows what to expect, and that gives it a much more experimental feel,” he said.
Raja applied to take part in the initiative on behalf of the school and underwent training in the summer of 2014. She said she hopes to offer the opportunity to more students in the future and implement the project in the curriculum of all biology I courses on campus, but she wants to see how positive her students’ reactions are first.
“It gives a real-world application to what you learn in the classroom,” she said. “We may be down here in South Florida in a small area, but now we are partnering with people from all over the world, and that’s pretty cool.”
Haldon Marmolejos, senior biology student, said that with bacteria continuously evolving, it’s important to find new strains that can prove to be helpful for treating various infections.
“It’s amazing to be part of a team that can help future generations of medications, finding diseases and finding something that can change the world,” he said.
For more information about the project or to get involved, contact Raja at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the initiative, visit smallworldinitiative.org.
PHOTOS PRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM A. RAJA.