By Elyse Pitkin
Although most Hiram students anticipate the end of the semester and the sweet rays of summer sunshine, you can find rising seniors, biology major and psychology minor, Satasha George, and biochemistry major and physics minor, Mark Macri, diligently experimenting and studying samples in their dark research lab on campus. This summer, both students are working with Steven Romberger Ph.D, associate professor of chemistry and Director of Hiram’s Office of Undergraduate Research, studying Heliomicrobium modesticaldum.
“The heliobacteria [helio meaning “sun”] are a really unusual group of photosynthetic organisms,” said Romberger. “There are a number of unique molecular things about them, and we are trying to figure out the biochemistry of how they do photosynthesis.” These particular bacteria use light and have chlorophylls, but they can’t work with carbon dioxide or turn water into oxygen. Many species are found in soil but this particular species of heliobacteria can be found in Icelandic hot springs or the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. “We are trying to figure out what these organisms are doing and why they’re doing it. Essentially, we are coming up with the same balanced equation for photosynthesis that we have for plants, algae and cyanobacteria,” said Romberger. By controlling light exposure, the team can control the photosynthetic reactions they’re studying. That means the team often works in the dark and uses specialized equipment to control when and how much light the bacteria get.
Since February, George has worked on creating multiple batches of cells and becoming more comfortable in a lab in preparation for this summer’s research. Now, she studies her samples every few hours and tests the heliobacteria absorbances based on various levels of wavelength. “We want to look at the life cycle of these bacteria,” she said. “My job is focusing on the growth curves and understanding how the cells grow and how they change.”
Macri follows the same preparations as George to get the cells ready, but his research focuses on the sample’s kinetic parameters at different wavelengths, using the JTS-10 Spectrophotometer. “My experiment is to basically take heliobacteria and expose it to light and oxygen (which they don’t like), and how that effects the kinetics,” he said.
“Molecules like chlorophylls or iron sulfur clusters that react during photosynthesis, have different colors. When they react, their color changes which means their absorbance changes,” said Romberger. By following those absorbance changes, the team can see which molecules are reacting and when. “There’s a lot of trial and error here.”
Both George and Macri had other plans for their careers before taking Romberger’s class. “At the beginning of college, I didn’t really like science. I used to be so afraid of saying anything in Romberger’s class,” she said. “But he officially has made me a student that is not afraid to ask questions or speak out.”
“I wanted to be an architect,” laughed Macri. “But then I shadowed Romberger and he pulled out his iPad at some point with some model of bacteria to show me and I thought it was really cool. And now here I am.” Macri plans on pursing medical or biomedical research after graduation and is grateful for this summer research opportunity. “I personally like doing this. I like the lab environment. It gets me prepped for what I want to do in life,” he said.
Similarly, Romberger had other plans than becoming a professor although his love of science has remained since he was a child. He said, “The thrill of discovery is what motivates me the most to do science. I always wanted to be a scientist of some flavor.” At first he wanted to be an archaeologist or paleontologist, thanks to Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park, but eventually because of his rural upbringing in Pennsylvania, Romberger began to question how the fertilizers used on his family farm worked and what coal run-off and acid mine drainage did to the environment. “I was fascinated by those kind of questions and molecular processes. I wanted to know what was happening.”
Romberger’s curiosity for discovery continues to be a theme he implements in his courses.
“For class, Romberger sat us down in his office and wanted to know what we liked to study and asked how we wanted to participate in lab. I told him, I just wanted to just grow stuff. I wasn’t that interested in biology at first,” said George. “But when he showed me heliobacteria, it was all sparkly and I knew I wanted to work with it. Honestly, he is cultivating scientists in his class one project at a time.” George is grateful for the opportunity to work over the summer as she plans on pursing veterinarian medicine and values the time working on research.
“Summer research is a totally different experience than learning something in my lab during the academic year, no matter how hard I try to make it the same,” said Romberger. “Every project they are working on this summer, hopefully amounts to some sort of contribution to our field. Some of it won’t because that’s the nature of science. Sometimes, experiments don’t work and that regularly happens to students, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean the contribution is less valuable.”
“Science is unpredictable,” George laughed.
Collectively, the research Romberger’s students are studying, will assist him with the eventual publications he hopes to produce. “We are in the early stages of what’s going on,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”