September 20, 2013 -This summer, a Fort Valley State University professor and two biology scholars took a road trip to conduct scientific research at one of America’s top governmental laboratories. Dr. Devin Horton, an assistant professor of biology; Miguel Thomas, a biology senior; and De’Marcus Wolfork, a recent FVSU graduate, conducted research at U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, located on Iowa State University’s campus.
Earlier this year, Horton applied for the Visiting Faculty Program at Ames Laboratory. The purpose of the program is to increase the research competitiveness of faculty members and students at historically underrepresented universities. The program helps to increase the number of professionals within the workforce that are vital to the Department of Energy’s goals. Additionally, professors may invite two students to help participate in a research project.
After learning that Horton would be traveling to the DOE lab to conduct research, Thomas, was determined to go too. “I asked her if she would take me to Iowa, too,” said the 23-year old Waynesboro native.
Horton applied for and received a supplement from the National Science Foundation to take Thomas and Woolfork (who graduated with his degree in biology in Fall 2012), along with her to Iowa.
During late spring, the trio traveled by car through America’s Midwestern Corn Belt. Horton snapped pictures of the students at different road stops and tourists locations before they arrived in Iowa.
Inside the research laboratory of ISU professor Marit Nilsen-Hamilton, Dr. Horton and the students analyzed locomotion in a common roundworm known as Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans.
“These worms are widely used as a genetic model [by scientists],” said Horton. “They were discovered in the 1950s and 60s as good models for genetic studies.”
The microscopic worm is one-millimeter long and thrives in temperate soil environments or decomposing food. C. elegans is also the first organism that had its entire genome sequenced by scientists in 2002. It has 20,470 genes located on its six chromosomes.
“It’s much easier to sequence a small organism with a small number of chromosomes,” said Horton, who says the worms are a good biological model because they reproduce quickly. “They have several genes that are homologous, or the same, in humans.”
The trio examined the biological process that the worms use to produce magnetic iron within their bodies.
“We know that C. elegans produces magnetic iron, but we aren’t sure what the mechanism is behind it. So, we were trying to understand the process of how the magnetic iron is produced,” said Thomas. The students used magnets with opposite charges, to see if they could manipulate movement of the worms on a petri dish. If this worked, said Horton, the next step would be to figure out what proteins the worms used to synthesize, or create, the iron crystals within their bodies.
During the study, the students learned several basic methods. They cultured the microscopic worms, grew them and fed them. Next, the students tried to move the worms using a magnetic stir bar. When the worms did not respond to the first magnetized field, they used stronger magnets, attaching them to one side of the plate. Every ten minutes, they would record how many worms gravitated toward the magnet.
Horton says that projects like the nematode worm study can help scientists within the U.S. Department of Energy understand how organisms efficiently synthesize molecules, which could lead to the development of more efficient, or better, composite materials.
“It was a great experience, and I would strongly encourage every student to do research,” said Thomas, who said he made a number of friendships with students from Michigan, the Philippines, New York, New Jersey and Mexico.
Christina D. Milton,writer
Fort Valley State University
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