Sigma Zeta students prepare to present research at national convention

During March 21-23, 15 members of the Our Lady of the Lake University chapter of the Sigma Zeta National Science and Mathematics Honor Society will attend the organization’s national convention held at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. Three students will present research at the conference.

OLLU Biology Professor Dr. James Hall serves as the the organization’s national executive director. Dr. Hall shared that OLLU students Stephanie Martinez and Aaron Williams conducted research under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Dr. Megan Borror. Student Scott Couper worked with Assistant Professor of Kinesiology, Dr. Alexander Hutchison. To participate in the convention, students must meet all of the Sigma Zeta membership requirements and be willing to work on a research project throughout the year. “A lot of it is determined by students who want to do research,” Dr. Borror said.


Dr. Hutchison and Scott Couper discuss the validation study as Saints track and field athlete Jose Zarate listens on.

Couper and Dr. Hutchison are performing a validation study on a Metabolic Cart, a new piece of equipment on the market that can be used for educational purposes. This piece of lab equipment was purchased from KORR Medical Technologies with a second one borrowed from Dr. Rogers Weight Loss Center. Meanwhile, under Dr. Borror’s guidance, Williams and Martinez worked with the microscopic roundworms C. elegans to discover how research is conducted. “These are a tool to look at the bigger problem,” Dr. Borror said.

A platinum wire is used to get a little bit of bacteria and pick the worms up with them.

“We’re doing two very similar topics where we’re both working with C. elegans which are a type of microscopic roundworm that typically feed on different types of bacteria and sometimes yeast. We’re doing it with two different types of bacteria, so basically we’re doing the same type of project but we’re using two different types of bacteria to test our hypothesis. We want to see if we can somehow put this research that we’re doing here and relate it to humans in some type of way. We talk about diet and different macromolecules, what is the right ratio of things like sugar to fat. We just want to see how the different ratios of nutrients affect an organism,” Williams said.

Image of C. elegans under a microscope contributed from Dr. Borror.

Each participant chose to work on their projects for different reasons. “Originally it was going to be my project only,” Dr. Hutchison said. “The kinesiology students I was speaking with were not interested, but Scott stepped up as a biology major and was interested.”

Williams became interested with his research topic last summer while taking biochemistry and working with C. elegans in a lab.

“There was one day we came into lab with a 200 millimeter flask and we were just dumping stuff into it. There was amino acids, we used some sugars, salts, just a whole combination of different things. We just started testing with little dishes where we put the worm in to see if they lived. They survived. I asked Dr. Borror if there was anything else we could do between that to test nutrient levels and their longitivtiy and reproduction outside of what we just stopped doing in lab and that is where the research came about,” Williams added.

Martinez focuses the microscope to find the C. elegans her and Williams are conducting their research on.

Multiple students expressed their enjoyment while conducting research.

“Besides what we do for our normal course labs, I had never worked on anything outside of lab. I thought working with the worms was going to be pretty fun,” Martinez said.

“I think I have a couple favorite parts. One is getting back into research. I come from a research background and getting back into research has been fun and teaching them some of the techniques. It’s been really fun to see them grow through the process too and they’ve both done a great job,” Dr. Borror said.

One of the most challenging parts of conducting research is time. “Having not enough time to come in here because you have other outside course work to finish and classes to attend and some of us do work study as well so that’s kind of hard to balance,” Martinez said. “Time has been a real struggle for all three of us, trying to find times where we can all get in here together to where I can show them different things. So they’ve done great with working around that and some of the writing projects that I’ve thrown at them,” Dr. Borror added.

Students and faculty research mentors are continuing to prepare for the upcoming convention. “We are in the late stages of the research. It’s all about getting the poster ready, working on our abstracts, intros, how to set out the poster. A lot of it is just getting all the data together, figuring out how we’re going to represent the data and just trying to figure out the last few components as we try to get ready,” Williams said.

Dr. Hutchison and Couper are continuing to track 17 members of the track team with the Metabolic Cart. “We measure them twice, once on one machine and once on another,” Dr. Hutchison said. The purpose of measurement is to check the perimeters of the new machine and validate its numbers. The machine measures gases during rest and exercise to examine O2 maximum per each volume consumed. For the presentation, the pair are currently working on honing skills for the abstract. “Once we get the last set of data he will create a poster presentation,” Dr. Hutchison said.

Hutchison watches the screen as Couper tracks the results of the validation study while Zarate is exercising. The tests are conducted twice, once on the borrowed machine and the second on the machine the pair is working to get validated.

Having attended the convention in the past, Martinez and Williams emphasized that seeing others present research encouraged them to present their own. “I wanted to do research because I have been on this Sigma Zeta trip since I was a freshman, and I eventually wanted to do my own before I graduate. It also gives you some pretty good experience in how research is conducted if you’re interested in going into grad school,” Martinez said.

Williams agreed with Martinez. “Another reason is it looks good on a resume. Doing this type of research if your applying to medical school, PA school, graduate school, looks good to those schools. It’s also fun, stressful, but fun.”

Both Martinez and Williams also encourage other students to take this opportunity in the future. “Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier it is a great experience. Even if you aren’t planning on doing research as your career path it still gives you that experience if something does pop up and you have to present at a larger conference,” William said. Martinez echoed this and added that she “would definitely recommend it to other students because it’s a great way to improve your public speaking which is very important, and it’s just overall a really good hands on experience you can get while your an undergrad student.”

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