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Delaware Tech Biology Student Looks at Soil for Clues to Ecosystem

STANTON - According to Dr. Thomas Hanson, a University of Delaware Associate Professor of Marine Biology and Biochemistry, undergraduate research is vital to producing highly trained scientists to work in Delaware. As part of his involvement in the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), he has been able to take an active role in working with young scientists to achieve this goal through paid internship programs.

One of these students is Delaware Tech Biological Sciences/Biotechnology student Alexa Bennett, who first met Dr. Hanson through the undergraduate research program at the College’s Stanton Campus. This summer, she had the opportunity to work with Dr. Hanson in a summer research internship focusing on culturing microbes from Arctic tundra soils and implementing high throughput molecular biology methods for screening isolated microbes to 1) determine if a given isolate is new or has been seen before in culturing efforts and 2) if the isolate has a copy of a gene called nifH.

The nifH gene product enables microbes to take nitrogen gas in the atmosphere and convert it to ammonium that is a major source of nitrogen in tundra soils that supports plant growth. Scientists know this happens, but have relatively few details on what microbes are doing the nitrogen fixation that’s critical to the health of this ecosystem. Tundra is a widespread ecosystem that influences the global carbon cycle.

According to Dr. Hanson, “Experiments don't always work and students have to learn how to understand when an experiment fails for technical reasons and when your hypothesis or model was wrong. If it was technical, you have to troubleshoot. If your model was wrong, you have to come up with a new one. This helps develop resilience and troubleshooting skills that are really hard to impart in a classroom or teaching laboratory. “

Alexa, who will be continuing her internship with Dr. Hanson while she completes her final classes at Delaware Tech, says her research allows her to use the techniques she has learned during her classes at Delaware Tech. “It’s been helpful in making connections with what I’ve learned prior. Dr. Hanson has been a great mentor and has taught me tips and tricks to be more efficient in the lab.”

The benefits of the EPSCoR research program don’t stop with just improving research techniques, however. Recent data indicates that 97% of EPSCoR scholars persist in undergraduate school (completed or on track to complete a Bachelor’s degree). Alexa, a recipient of a 2012 Governor’s Biotechnology Scholarship, is no exception. After graduating from Delaware Tech, she plans to attend the University of Delaware where she hopes to ultimately earn a PhD in Microbiology and become a university professor.