STEP Into Science

(July 12, 2013) Abby Sears, a rising freshman at Armstrong, isn't spending her summer watching TV or playing video games like many of her peers. Instead, this 17-year-old chemistry major is working in a lab at Armstrong, conducting cutting-edge scientific research.

Under the guidance of associate professor of chemistry Brent Feske, Sears is developing new pharmaceutical syntheses using engineered E. coli. This Buford, Ga. native welcomes the opportunity to develop her lab skills through the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) at Armstrong.

As part of a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, entering freshmen at Armstrong can conduct scientific research at the university's laboratories before they even set foot in a classroom for fall courses. They then continue their research as undergraduates, enjoying critical hands-on learning opportunities.

“Nothing trumps experience,” Sears said. “Learning from a textbook is very straightforward and doesn't allow for a lot of human error, which happens kind of often in a lab full of undergraduates. Lab research is just much more realistic and more beneficial from an educational standpoint.”

Sears is one of 33 students participating in the STEP program this summer, including 11 incoming freshmen. The program, which officially started at Armstrong in 2009, offers unique experiences each year for a select group of incoming undergraduate students. Students perform research and obtain intensive new skills in applied mathematics over two summers. This innovative program supports learning communities that focus on undergraduate research for students with a desire to pursue careers in the sciences and mathematics.

Feske is mentoring seven undergraduate students—including Sears—in the lab this summer, all of whom work on a variety of related chemistry projects. “We have developed a new synthesis to the antibiotic fosfomycin,” he said. “We have also developed new strategies using our enzymes to make Prozac and other serotonin reuptake inhibitors.”

An accomplished biocatalysis researcher, Feske believes lab experience will help establish the foundation for future student success in the sciences. “It's a known fact that if students have research experience, it strengthens their applications to jobs, graduate school, or professional schools once they graduate,” he explained.

Assistant professor of biology Traci Ness, who also serves as the director of the STEP Program at Armstrong, agrees. She is working with undergraduates to identify and characterize immune receptors that recognize fungal infections in the mouth. Students are investigating the interactions between the sugars on the surface of the pathogenic yeast Candida albicans and the immune system's TLR4 receptor.

James Duddleston, a rising sophomore and biology major from St. Marys, Ga., appreciates the opportunity to get hands-on experience in the lab. This hard-working STEP student has worked with assistant professor of biology Jay Hodgson for two consecutive summers, studying diatoms embedded in sediment samples from Skidaway Island to analyze the history of Georgia's barrier islands.

“This project is giving the students lots of hands-on research experience with sampling the sediments, extracting diatoms, making microscope slides, and identifying diatoms under the microscope,” Hodgson said.

For Duddleston, the research experience has been priceless. “The STEP program is helping me become a better scientist,” he said. “It allows me to practice my lab techniques and skills much more than just taking lab classes. I'm also exposed to new techniques that are way ahead of my current classes.”

Conducted in partnership with the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, the research project Duddleston has been working on has yielded some fascinating findings. The team's research suggests that tidal areas have become wetter over the past 3,000 years, which may indicate corresponding increases in sea levels. In turn, this may support the Mid-Holocene Hydrogeologic Maximum Hypothesis which proposes that the southeastern United States was inundated with higher than normal water levels many years after the end of the last ice age.

The contribution students are making in the lab is invaluable. Duddleston recently traveled to Jacksonville, Fla. with Hodgson to present original research at the annual meeting of the Society for Freshwater Science.

“The research was well-received, and James did an outstanding job presenting it and explaining it to others,” Hodgson said. “Everyone assumed he was a graduate student. They were shocked when James revealed he just finished his freshman year at Armstrong.”