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Dordt College News

Science research

May 24, 2013

Collaboration describes how students and faculty are working in Dordt’s science building, and it is opening up some amazing opportunities.

As a first year faculty member, Dr. Robbin Eppinga is excited about the way Dordt science majors are learning.

Eppinga, who came to Dordt from a research position at Mayo Clinic, appreciates the fact that senior biology majors are required to develop and lead projects that get them involved in real research—and it’s not only because some students are carrying on research he did in his Ph.D. and postdoctoral programs.

“This kind of research opportunity—and the funding the college provides to make it possible—is something that few schools offer,” he says. He and his colleagues say it helps students develop skills, learn valuable research techniques, and understand research processes. It also helps them gain confidence and a sense of responsibility in their work, and it provides valuable skills for careers in biomedical, environmental, or chemical research.

At weekly seminars, they report on their progress to each other, to the five faculty who toss out comments and questions, and to underclass science majors who take it all in. Students step up to expectations and show what they’ve done that week; faculty offer suggestions and compliments, injecting helpful context and valuable technical information.

A collective faculty “Ooo, that’s nice!” might be followed with “That’s impressive,” “You might try…,”How long did you…?” or “What are we expecting here?” Students candidly say “I messed something up” or “I don’t know how to explain this” as well as confidently describe results they’ve gained.

Such collaboration makes teaching and learning fun, says Eppinga, because students are asking new questions and neither they nor the faculty know what results they will find.

“This increases the excitement and the value of the research, and it engenders a team spirit because everyone is eager for the experiments to succeed,” he adds.

“Doing science is about process,” says Dr. Darren Stoub. Students are encouraged to predict results, but even when the data doesn’t seem to make sense, they try to make sense out of what happened so that they can design better experiments and interpret unexpected results.

“Students are learning to solve problems,” adds Dr. Tony Jelsma, noting that good problem solving skills benefit every area of life. “And they retain more of what they learn than when they follow a canned set of instructions.” Jelsma also says that students are developing skills and learning about career options they didn’t even know existed.

Guided by faculty, students choose an area of interest and develop a feasible research question to investigate. Their choices are based on their interests,  opportunities available as a result of faculty expertise, or current faculty research or the research of colleagues in the field.

“We like to see projects that are specifically geared to serving some need. But research is also a bit like art—there is simple joy in exploring specific parts of creation,” says Dr. Jeff Ploegstra. He cites the work some of his students are doing to help develop a perennial wheatgrass that would be marketable as a grain and reduce farmers’ annual replanting costs. And he adds, “Learning how things work is incredibly cool—even watching cancer metastasize.”

Eppinga wants his students to ask, “Why is this an intriguing part of creation?” and then develop their project in a way that reflects who they are and what they believe.

Training Christians to think scientifically and training scientists who think Christianly is important work, Eppinga believes. He wants his students to understand and value science, to embrace the fact that science offers a powerful way to observe God’s general revelation in the creation. He believes that some Christians are skeptical of science because they see science less as a process and more as a proscribed set of truth statements that they may reject. For him, science is a systematic way of asking questions and finding answers to those questions.

“Data doesn’t lie,” says Eppinga, quickly adding that “interpretation can.” Eppinga and the other faculty are intent on helping the students do science and see science as one way to know and shape God’s world and to value how it can help us live in and understand that world.

“What we choose to observe can shape what we think we know,” Ploegstra says, asking rhetorically, “What is error and what is data?” He believes that our assumptions can have an impact on how we answer that question.

It’s also true that we see what we know to look for, says Adjunct Professor Brittany De Ruyter, who works with many of the student researchers.

“There are endless amazing things to observe in the creation. After taking avian biology at Dordt and learning to identify many, many birds by sight and call, being outside has never been the same!” She believes that the same principle is true for students doing research. After learning to ask scientific questions, grounded in a biblical worldview, they leave with a new and enriched way to observe the world around them.

Science, like business, sports, and much of our society, is becoming more competitive, bringing with it more potential for distortion, say Ploegstra and Eppinga. They want their students to see that economic gain, professional prestige, competition for funding, and self-interest are the wrong motivators in any calling. Senior research projects give students, guided by their professors, time to explore whether they are being called—whether they have the skill, desire, and opportunity—to pursue research as a career. Whether they do or not, they learn how to think critically about science, scientific claims, and the scientific workings of this world.


SALLY JONGSMA

Biology uses Y2H screening method

Dr. Tony Jelsma used a research model of learning in his molecular biology class last semester. It made for a tough course but helped students learn a powerful research technique, Yeast Two-Hybrid (Y2H) screening.

It also created a different classroom culture in which students took more responsibility for their learning.

Y2H is a molecular biology technique used to identify interactions between proteins that helps researchers understand how a particular protein functions in the cell. Jelsma had his students continue work Dr. Robbin Eppinga had done for his Ph.D. research at the University of Iowa using this technique to screen the cells for proteins that interact with the myosin Va (MVa) protein.

“MVa is a motor protein. It carries cargo from place to place in the cell. If you think of MVa as an 18-wheel truck, MVa would be the tractor with its motor and the trailer would be the many cargos that it hauls—everything from neurotransmitters that help the brain cells communicate, melanin granules that give skin a darker color of a sun tan, and some unknown cargos that are involved in helping cancer cells move. We would like to know how the MVa carries all of these cargos, so we need to search for the proteins that help ‘hitch’ the motor to the cargo,” Eppinga says.

“We’re looking for a better understanding of how cancer cells metastasize, how nerve cells work, how cells organize themselves during healthy states, and how this is disrupted during disease,” he adds. The Y2H screen helps find the hitches that help MVa bind its cargo. As they apply the technique, students do cutting-edge research, learn state-of-the-art techniques, and ask fundamental questions in the fields of molecular genetics and cell biology.

Jelsma, who had to deal with a larger than normal class—which meant that not all students could work at research stations simultaneously—had his students characterize candidate partners of MVa. Y2H  enabled them to explore things they would not have been able to investigate using other research techniques, he says.

Students could do their work any time of the day or night in the lab. They became more independent learners and often helped each other learn how to use a particular apparatus or process.

“Most biology projects cannot be completed in three-hour lab periods,” says Jelsma. “The reality of research is that you often struggle with executing techniques, optimizing protocols, and interpreting data. This can be a frustrating process, but it is extremely rewarding when everything comes together. Experiencing this process in an educational setting helps train students for careers in the sciences.”  

The benefits of using this research model have already been observed in other laboratories and active-learning environments. Dr. Jeff Ploegstra was amazed at the independence and ability of the students in this semesters’ advanced microbiology class who had taken Jelsma’s course last semester. Their ability to apply this scientific technique and their ability to ask good scientific questions demonstrated a different level of ability than previous classes of students. He says students gave better responses to his questions and had a deeper understanding of how the cell works than he’d ever experienced before.

“These students will have skills equal to or above anyone going into cellular or molecular study,” says Jelsma.

Senior projects

This year’s seniors are doing research that:

Assesses the prevalence of an invasive species of carp, silver or flying carp, in the Rock and Sioux River watersheds

Explores whether certain types of genes correlate with athletic strength or endurance in the Dordt athletic population as compared to the general Dordt population

Identifies proteins that the Cux1 mouse protein interacts with in mouse germ cell development

Identifies how cargo is moved within brain cells by investigating the proteins that interact with a brain motor protein

Assesses the presence and abundance of small mammals at Oak Grove State Park, to understand what loss of tall grass prairie has meant for populations of local mammals and to develop a baseline for future small mammal management in the park

Determines how cancer moves from the original tumor to invade other regions of the body, in a process called metastasis

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