Student Researchers Join Small World Initiative (SWI)

Student Researchers Join Small World Initiative (SWI)

Tackling biomedical issue of antibiotic shortage

Every one of NJCU’s 100 first-semester biology majors is working to address a critical worldwide health crisis—the diminishing supply of antibiotics.

The budding scientists are among hundreds of students and microbiologists from 109 schools in 32 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and eight other countries who are part of the Small World Initiative (SWI), an international collaboration that is harnessing the collective power of student researchers across the globe to discover new antibiotics from soil microorganisms.

The global effort to discover novel antibiotics involves laboratory and field research to isolate new bacteria from soil collected from local environments. The NJCU students are working with soil samples they have individually collected at sites around New Jersey. Some of the sampling areas are the abandoned hospital, isolation wards, and morgue at Ellis Island, a promising site as lore has it that one of the most successful producers of antibiotic variety was found in topsoil from an old cemetery.

The urgency of this quest for new drugs has intensified steadily since the mid-1980s when pharmaceutical companies first began to abandon this line of research as it became increasingly unprofitable due to its time-consuming nature and FDA-approval requirements. This desertion and resulting scarcity has been compounded by a worldwide drug supply that is becoming ineffectual.

The NJCU students are working with an interdisciplinary faculty research team comprised of biochemists, geochemists, cell biologists, and a microbiologist. The work of these nascent biologists is also passed along to geoscience students for analysis and extension and then on to upper-level biology and geoscience majors for phylogenetic, biochemical, and geochemical characterizations.

Some of the materials used by the NJCU students have been provided by Dr. Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy whose Yale University course, “Microbes to Molecules,” inspired SWI, which was launched in 2013 and is now managed by the Institute for Life Sciences Collaboration. Dr. Cindy Arrigo, an associate professor of biology, and Dr. Freda Robbins, a professor of mathematics, trained under Dr. Handelsman that same year.

Fast forward to last summer when Dr. Arrigo and her colleagues, Dr. Nurdan Duzgoren-Aydin, a professor and chair of geoscience/geography, and Dr. Natalia Coleman, an assistant professor of biology, spent a week at a National Academies of Science Summer Institute on “Research-in-the Classroom” at the University of Texas, Austin. While there, the NJCU team was inspired to bring the SWI project home by embedding the research into their courses, replacing the canned and cookbook labs that they had been using.

When Biology Department faculty members Dr. Reed Carroll and Dr. Meriem Bendaoud, associate and assistant professors respectively, added their expertise and their classes to the project it allowed for all incoming biology students to start their major program with an individual, authentic, hypothesis-driven research project focused on a real-world, pressing biomedical question.

“This first semester alone we are over 200 research hands strong,” noted Dr. Coleman, before adding, “We are getting results and the students are really inspired.”

The ambitious and innovative project enables undergraduates to complete authentic research and to “own” their discoveries. Research shows that when students participate in research early in college, they are more likely to persist in science majors. This supports the national effort to encourage more students to enter into STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math–programs.

While antibiotic discovery and development take longer than a semester, the collective effort of many students increases the chance of identifying potential candidates for new drugs.

Dr. Bendaoud says, “We have already identified several antibiotic producers,” and Dr. Duzgoren-Aydin offers one possible explanation, ’’Geochemical characteristics of urban soils in Jersey City have been strongly impacted by anthropogenic activities.”

“Who knows,” says Dr. Bendauoud, “The next generation antibiotic may come from New Jersey soils and through the hands of NJCU students.”

The world looks forward to it. NJCU