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Giving Students Hands-on Lab Experience: In a science department like Biological Sciences, undergraduates often ask faculty members for the opportunity to do a research project in their lab.  While faculty members do what they can to offer those opportunities, none have room in their labs for every student who asks.  If the department had a way to provide more research opportunities for our students, they would have a better chance of landing a job with a bachelor’s degree in biology.  Enter CURE courses!

What is a CURE course? In a CURE course, students identify a research question they’d like to answer, and then design, perform, and analyze experiments where the outcomes are unknown.  Along the way they develop technical skills, learn to trouble-shoot their experimental designs, and problem-solve when experiments don’t work or produce unexpected data. Finally, they learn how to communicate their findings to their instructors, their departments, or at scientific meetings.

Why are CURE courses useful?  CUREs can give our students marketable skills for employment in the Memphis biotech industry or research institutes like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.  Research experience is also important for resume-building for professional schools and new findings could lead to a scientific publication.  Seeing concepts discussed in class put into practice in the lab reinforces what they’ve learned.

The Department’s first CURE: BIOL 4090 Synthetic Biology:   Drs. Jaime Sabel and Judy Cole began offering the department’s first CURE course, Synthetic Biology, in the fall of 2018.  In this lab, students design and construct a novel biological device using the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) registry of standardized “parts” (DNA sequences that encode a biological function).   They then use these devices to answer a specific scientific question.   In the pilot run of the course, three groups of students learned to how to make bacteria express plasmids containing a specific part, how to harvest the plasmid from the bacteria, isolate each part, and join the parts together.  In Figure 1 a DNA ligase is used to join the LacI V5 promoter (a region of DNA where converting DNA into RNA starts) to a composite part consisting of a ribosomal binding site (a nucleotide sequence that recruits a ribosome to start protein translation) and a green fluorescent protein reporter gene used to indicate that the device is being expressed. If bacteria glow green, they are making the device.  In the first running of the class the all three groups of students chose to ask questions about the ability of a cobalt-sensitive promoter to (1) drive the expression of a super yellow fluorescent protein, (2) examine the cobalt promoter's sensitivity to nickel activation and (3) ask if cobalt-induced activation could overcome the effects of a weak terminator.  Although we discovered later that the promoter had a mutation that made it insensitive to cobalt (drat!), everyone managed to ligate three parts to make a three-part device.
Figure 2: Images from the first Synthetic Biology lab: (1) bacteria expressing the three-part device on an antibiotic-selective agar plate (2) groups updating their notebooks, (3) prepping DNA for ligation (4) setting up DNA to run an agarose gel, (5) running agarose gels, and (6) Look!  Restriction digests shows three parts!

Synthetic Biology Part Deux: At the end of last year's lab, students and faculty had a trouble-shooting session where they all exchanged ideas for improving the student experience.  Based on those suggestions, and their own observations on what did and didn't work,  Drs. Sabel and Cole are looking forward to a new group of students getting a hands-on experience synthesizing biology.

 

 

 

By Jennifer R. Mandel

Making up one in every ten flowering plants on Earth, members of the daisy, or sunflower, family have fascinated scientists for hundreds of years. Many species of plants that you might not expect belong to this family: Gerber Daisies and the iconic sunflower of course, but lettuce, artichoke, wormwood (think absinthe), and dandelions. Sunflower relatives aren't all herbaceous either--there are trees, vines, and shrubs. The oldest fossil of a sunflower-like flower head is roughly 40 million years (MY) old and was discovered in Southern South America in Patagonia. From 40 MY onward, the fossil record for sunflowers picks up with evidence showing up around the globe. In large part due to these findings, the sunflower family was thought to have originated in the Eocene (56 to 33.9 MY) by most scientists making it a (relatively) young family in evolution's time frame.

Chionolaena. Photo by Carolina Siniscalchi

However, with the advent of molecular dating techniques and the rapid advances made in sequencing technologies and genomics, the data began to hint that the family could be older--possibly even twice as old. Two small studies in the family described a sunflower scenario with a much older origin that was prior to the mass extinction event that corresponded to the extinction of dinosaurs about 66 MY. Adding to this, a fossil pollen grain ascribed to the family was discovered in Antarctica and dated to 72 MY in the very late Cretaceous. The Antarctica of today was not the Antarctica of the Cretaceous, the climate was cool temperate, and no ice existed. At this time, Southern South America, Antarctica, and Australia were much closer to one another and possibly even connected. This land connection describes how many of the plant and animal distributions that are now separated may have originated including the closest family relatives of sunflowers.

Porophyllum. Photo by Carolina Siniscalchi

The Mandel Lab along with collaborators at the Smithsonian Institute and Oklahoma State University have been investigating the origins of the family in both space and time making use of the new sequencing technologies and fossil evidence. We sequenced nearly 1000 genes in 250 species and used molecular dating, biogeographical analyses, and diversification tests to ask where, how, and when did the sunflower family originate. Our data show that the family probably originated in Southern South America though Antarctica cannot be ruled out (my money would be on the latter). And we further confirm a pre-mass extinction origin for daisies when dinosaurs still walked the Earth! We also showed that the family tremendously increased in species number during the Eocene connecting our work with the extensive fossil record from that time. Finally, we link this explosion of diversity with a global change in climate that likely transformed many of the habitats to those that were most suitable for sunflowers and their relatives to thrive. This study is only the beginning of our investigations into understanding how sunflowers have become the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants on Earth. We aim to use this new information to continue to understand how climate, habitats, and genomic diversity influence plant biodiversity and distributions.

The full story published June 2019 in PNAS can be read here.

The Department of Biological Sciences is part of the University of Memphis - an urban university. You might think that limits our ability to give students the opportunity to study plants and animals in their native habitats, but that's not the case.  We have a number of classes with a field study component and in this blog entry, we're going to talk about a class that takes students into the field to observe frogs, salamanders, and snakes in the wild.

Dr. Matthew Parris teaches BIOL 4744 Herpetology (the study of amphibians like frogs, toads, and salamanders, as well as reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and turtles) which introduces students to the classification, distribution, life histories, techniques of collection and preservation, and natural habitats of North American reptiles and amphibians. According to Dr. Parris, herpetology is one of the most rapidly expanding branches of zoological study. There are number of reasons for the increased interest, including the importance of amphibians and reptiles in many ecological communities, and because they have been experiencing extraordinary population declines over the last few decades. These declines herald a global deterioration of ecosystem quality, which negatively affects both wildlife and human populations. Dr. Parris’ class provides a contemporary assessment of amphibian and reptile conservation, ecology, and evolution and he emphasizes three fundamental biological components: evolutionary history, form and function, and ecology and conservation.

Dr. Parris’ class reflects the kind of research he conducts in primarily two settings: a temperature-controlled laboratory with access to a wet lab, and an outdoor array of pond mesocosms (any outdoor experimental system that examines the natural environment under controlled conditions) located at the Meeman Biological Field Station. Access to both the lab and a more natural outdoor experimental system allows him to conduct experiments with individual animals and at the population or community level. His primary focus is determining how natural and human influence impact amphibian life history and fitness. These pressures include predation, pesticide exposure, and infection by the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. The work in his lab seeks to describe the effects of these pressures, both independently and interactively, on amphibians and aquatic communities. Read more about Dr. Parris’ research.

 

Pictured are members of this spring’s class who collected snakes, frogs, and toads from T.O. Fuller State Park and from the Department’s Meeman Biological Station

 

 

The Ins and Outs of Requesting a Letter of Reference
by Communications Committee

You're thinking about medical or dental school or perhaps graduate school and you notice that most of them require one or more “letters of reference” to go with your application. Generally, the application instructions will indicate whether the letters should come from an instructor, a professor or a supervisor of your work. What should you do? The first thing you need to do is decide who to ask.  This should be a person who knows you fairly well (no, don’t ask your mom) and yet is an authority figure, for example the professor in charge of the lab you worked in rather than a technician or post doc. Once you’ve identified who you want to write a letter, ask them, preferably in person. This is why having some prior contact and interaction with the individual will help immensely in soliciting their help and giving them more detailed information to add in their letter. You should also provide the referee a release that allows them to discuss your performance in school. The form is found on the Biology website: click on the undergraduate menu on the left side or click on this link: https://www.memphis.edu/biology/undergraduate/pdfs/letter_recommendation.pdf

Many students use electronic application services such as PharmCAS or AMCAS.  These provide websites for the transfer of electronic letters of reference and make the process fairly easy, especially if you plan to apply to multiple schools or programs. If you are applying directly to a program or for a particular job be sure to provide the snail-mail address or email of the person that should get the letter. Letters need to be sent either by the services such as AMCAS or directly from the referee to the admissions committee. Generally, letters forwarded from the applicant are not very useful; if you are concerned whether a letter has been sent, it is perfectly acceptable to email the referee to inquire, especially if there is an application deadline. Most letter writers understand the deadline dilemma.

That brings up when you should solicit letters. It never hurts to ask well in advance if an individual would be amenable to supporting your application with a letter. Usually the program application instructions will indicate the deadline and that needs to be passed along to your referees. Do not expect a very helpful letter if you ask to have  it sent tomorrow! Give the referee some time measured in weeks rather than hours to write your letter. A general rule would be to give the letter writer at least a month before the deadline to submit the letter. It helps enormously if you provide them with your resume or curriculum vitae, outlining not only your schoolwork but also jobs, hobbies, sports and other activities such as volunteering. Remember that crusty old prof had to ask for lots of letters of reference to get where they are now. Good luck with your applications and with attaining your future goals.

Students ask me about career choices and how best to attain their dream job. I tell them my experiences, both personal and professional, indicate that motivation and interest are key. Ask yourself this question: what do you truly enjoy doing? For example, is it an outdoors activity (useful for ecotech, environmental work), is it talking and being with people (needed for teaching, biotech reps, medicine), is it doing some type of fine handcraft (useful for surgeon assistants, cell biologists), is it working with animals or plants (labtech, vet techs, agriculture)? Binge watching Netflix probably is not going to get you far in terms of job prospects even though it may be a favorite pastime. Motivation plays a major role: This must last long-term, in other words lots of things motivate us at first, but can quickly get old, mundane and we lose interest. Will your chosen profession/career give you motivation to wake up in the morning and get at it?

Another key to this puzzle is your experiences. At the bachelor degree level, starting jobs often eventually lead to other doors opening, in other words the first job after the BS may not be “it”, your dream job. That starting job may be because you happened to take an extra chemistry, biology lab or math course not directly needed for the major. It may be because of a summer job at a lab testing service, or volunteering at a research lab. So not only are your goal-directed courses important, other tangential experiences will likely also determine your success. Every experience may be important to an employer and you may not know what single factor got you the job. It is the aggregate and diversity of experience that win the day. Well, OK, maybe even binge watching would be important to some employers! Best of luck in your search.

Ms. Marie Fong and Mr. Jake Myers walk onto the field during Homecoming 2018, UofM Football vs UConn, October 6, 2018.
Photo Credit: Trey Clark. Used with permission of the University of Memphis Media Relations Office.

Jake Myers, a senior majoring in Biology and Spanish from Columbia, TN, was one of five finalists for Mr. U of M.  The Mr. and Ms. U of M awards acknowledge past service to the university as well as present a forward-looking agenda through implementation of the winner’s community action plan.  Jake is already an active member of several student groups including: the Vice President of Administration for the Student Ambassador Board, a Tiger Elite Ambassador, member-at-large and campus safety co-chair within the Student Government Association, and the Secretary for the Student Members of the American Chemical Association.  He was nominated for the honor of Mr. U of M based on his work on the Student Ambassador Board, then completed an application that included three essays and an interview about his community action plan, finally the student body voted for the five candidates.  Jake said he was honored by the nomination and opportunity to give back to the University of Memphis community that he loves.

Beyond his numerous service commitments on campus, Jake also volunteers in the Bowers Lab where he has gained experience extracting DNA from bird blood and genotyping individuals to identify males and females.  Following graduation in May 2019, Jake plans to go to medical school and one day hopes to work as a bilingual pediatrician.  Jake’s favorite Biology class at the University of Memphis was Stem Cells with Dr. Amy Abell; he said, “the field is so new and innovative and I can see how it relates to my career interests.”  He also said that Dr. Barbara Taller’s Biology I was a pivotal course for him and that he was grateful for how she pushed students to reach their full potential.

Congratulations to Jake on the honor of representing the university as a Mr. U of M finalist!

Dr. Amy Abell is promoted to Associate Professor with Tenure

As of September 1st, the Department of Biological Sciences has a new Associate Professor!  Dr. Amy Abell was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure.  Dr. Abell began her research career as graduate student studying the structure and function of G protein coupled receptors that are essential for reproduction. During her post-doctoral training, she created a mouse model with defects related to perturbations in epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT), a biological process controlling the conversion of stationary epithelial stem cells to motile mesenchymal cells. Importantly, EMT is essential for normal development, but it is reactivated in several pathologies including organ fibrosis and cancer metastasis.  Dr. Abell teaches undergraduate courses on the Biology of Stem Cells, and Molecular Biology of the Gene as well as a graduate course entitled Stem Cells: Culture/Application. Dr. Abell's lab uses stem cells that she has isolated from mice with EMT-related defects to define the signaling/gene expression networks regulating EMT. One goal of her research is to identify novel master regulators of EMT and the reverse process MET. This information will be used in designing new strategies for regenerative medicine and the treatment of EMT related pathologies. Projects in the lab use molecular, cellular and embryological tools to identify regulators of EMT.  Read more about Dr. Abell's lab


Dr. Duane McKenna receives The William Hill Professorship in Biology

At the Fall College of Arts and Sciences Faculty meeting, Dr. Duane McKenna was presented with The William Hill Professorship in Biology for his consistent and extraordinarily high level performance in terms of research and external funding, teaching, and service to his department and the university. This endowed professorship will be indefinitely renewable every five years, based upon his continued excellence in research, teaching, and service. Dr. McKenna’s research interests include the phylogeny and evolution of insects, the genomic basis of plant-feeding in beetles, and interactions between beetles and plants on ecological and evolutionary time scales. Dr. McKenna, who joined the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Memphis in 2010, received his a BS in Biology and Chemistry from Western Michigan University, an MS in Entomology from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and his PhD in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University.  Dr. McKenna teaches a number of course including Evolution, Entomology, and new course this year - Biodiversity.

The William Hill Professorship in Biology is named for the late William D. (“Billy”) Hill and was established using a gift to the college from the Hill-Clayton Trust. Mr. Hill lived in Memphis for most of his life and attended Memphis Public Schools, worked for Buckeye Cellulose Corp, and was a sergeant in the Army Air Force during WWII. Congratulations Dr. McKenna! Read more about Dr. McKenna's work

  

 

 

 

 

 

Grad Students attend the Animal Behavior Society Meeting in Wisconsin

Members of the Ferkin and Bowers lab went to the Animal Behavior Society Conference in Wisconsin in August! New friends were made, old friends were visited, and some research was showcased!

Pictured (left to right): Ryan Scauzillo, Karl Rohrer, Lyndsey Pierson, Kelsey Clark, Jonathan Jenkins, and Sarah Gerris.

 

 

 


Graduate Student  Attends Ridge to Reef Climate and Life Summer Institute in August
by Malle Carrasco-Harris

I was selected to attend the Ridge to Reef Climate and Life Summer Institute hosted at the University of California Irvine. Irvine, located in Orange County, was the perfect location for this institute because it experiences the Mediterranean climate, typified by long, dry summers and mild, wet winters. This area is a unique ecosystem with many rare or endangered plants and animals, but also sits in the heart of Southern California urban development and sprawl.

The goals of the R2R CAL were to provide training in skills and concepts related to climate change and biological diversity in human-dominated and impacted systems. Twenty-five students from the US and Mexico represented various departments, including ecology and evolutionary biology, engineering, and earth sciences. Every  day, various professors provided introductions to their fields, and then we engaged in group activities that usually lead to an outcome we presented to our peers.

Topics included:

  • Management challenges and analysis tools (Jutta Burger and Efi Foufoula-Georgiou)
  • Beyond the urban wildland interface (Darrel Jenerette)
  • Precipitation variability (Osvaldo Sala) & a visit to the Loma Ridge research site
  • Urban ecology and management (Diane Pataki)
  • Climate variability (Kelly Caylor) & data collection at Corona del Mar state beach
  • Marine intertidal ecosystems and communities (Cascade Sorte)
  • Environmental flows and urban water management (Eric Stein)

R2R was a neat opportunity to work with students from different backgrounds. I quickly learned that my peers had expertise in different fields, which meant they may not approach problem solving the way I do and frequently contributed alternative ideas. Group activities were often a good challenge for growing in communication skills and the ability to facilitate different perspectives. A big takeaway lesson from R2R was that many diverse voices are required around the table to help find solutions in science.

 

 

 

 


First time offering of BIOL4/6093   Lichen Biology


This summer, the department offered a course on lichen biology during the second summer session.  Lichens are a symbiotic organism comprised of an algae (photobiont) and a fungus and commonly grow on trees, rocks and the soil.  Lichens are also indicators of environmental health; areas which have a greater amount of air pollution have a greater number of pollution-tolerant lichen species.  Pollution- sensitive lichens are found in areas that are less impacted by automobiles and other sources of pollution. Taught by Lynda Miller (College of the Ozarks), the students collected from the Edward J. Meeman Biological Station (Millington, TN), Shelby Farms Park (Memphis, TN), Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge (Turrell, AR 72384), and Ghost River State Natural Area (Moscow, TN).    Over the course of the two week course, 31 lichen species were identified! When asked if the course had been a good experience, one student replied "We were talking about that last night at the dorm – we think every student should have a course like this during their undergraduate years.” Visit the Meeman website and check out the lichens found at Meeman
Pictured:  On the left, the Lichen Biology class with instructor Lynda Miller (far left).  In the middle (top) a sample from the collection and in the middle (bottom), a ) student with his lichen collection. On the right, students collecting at the Ghost River section of the Wolf River. 

 

 

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