Alexia Kemerling

The work of researchers from labs in Indiana, Spain, Portugal, and our very own Hiram, Ohio, came together in a recent paper published in  Microbial Cell Factories, a world-leading journal focusing on applied microbiology. Brad Goodner, Ph.D., professor of biology, is one of the paper’s authors.

However, for Goodner the most exciting aspect of this publication isn’t his own byline, it’s the names of his students in the acknowledgements section at the end of the paper.

Although the research was just published, the work began nearly a decade ago in Goodner’s 2009 genetics class. Goodner and his students were using genetic tools to study a salt-tolerant bacterium known as Chromohalobacter salexigens. The bacteria was of interest to these young scientists and their professor because of it’s ability to survive in environments like the Great Salt Lake that are normally uninhabitable for most organisms. If students could identify the gene that helps the bacteria survive, they could use that information to help other organisms. For example, the salt-tolerant gene could help crops survive in soils that are becoming saltier due to the use of fertilizers.

During their genetic class, students discovered a new role for one of the genes. Goodner notes that while the data was interesting at the time, it wasn’t quite enough to publish on its own. Nevertheless, he shared the find with Laszlo Csonk, one of his colleagues at Purdue University.

As the 2009 courses ended, Goodner kept the intriguing data tucked away in his mind. Then one day, nine years later, he received a call for Csonk asking if he still remembered the experiment. Csonk believed that the find made by Goodner and his students could fill a crucial hole in a larger collaborative research project. So Goodner set to work re-conducting the experiments and brining the old research back to life. Though the co-authors of this paper were spread across the world, Goodner says that technology made it feel as if their labs were right down the hall. After Goodner’s contributions were added, they were able to publish the paper, “Fructose metabolism in Chromohalobacter salexigens: interplay between the Embden-Meyerhof-Parnas and Entner-Doudoroff pathways.”

For a discovery made by undergraduate students to play such a key role in a large paper may seem like a remarkable moment in education, a pure stroke of luck—and in some ways it is. But in Goodner’s classroom, it’s also pretty typical.

The walls of Goodner’s office are lined with framed copies of his journal publications. If you ask about any of the studies, the first thing he’ll do is point out all of the student authors whose names appear right next to his own. When he uses one of these studies in his classes, he highlights those names.

“I want my students to know that they’re doing work that’s capable of being published,” Goodner says.

When planning lessons for a course, Goodner always makes an effort to bring unanswered questions to his lab. His students aren’t developing lab skills through sample experiments out of a textbook, they’re practicing with real research. Goodner has made it his personal mission to give every student the chance to learn something no one else has learned before. Every student has the chance to make a breakthrough. And when he sees this realization light up a students eyes, Goodner knows he’s succeeding as a teacher.

“It’s my job to show students that even though the tasks they’re doing might seem small, they could someday contribute to a larger collaborative effort—just like the recent publication,” Goodner says. “This is how modern science works; no one lab has all the expertise, so we all have to work together.”

At conferences and meetings, Goodner often finds himself talking about the lab work happening in his classes. And when he returns to Hiram, he tells his students about how researchers at other colleges and universities are interested in what they’re doing.

“Students sit up a little straighter, start to take their work more seriously when they realize what they’re doing matters,” Goodner says.

Goodner notes that often times students enter his lab without much self-confidence; often times they’re the first in their family to go to college. Once a first-generation college student himself, Goodner knows firsthand the impact that experiential learning can have. He still remembers the research opportunity during his undergraduate years at Texas A&M University that sparked his passion for scientific learning.

As a professor, he strives to offer as many opportunities for independent research as he can. If a certain research topic sparks an interest in a student, he encourages them to pursue it outside of class.

“I always make the promise that if [students] are willing to make the extra effort, put in the extra lab hours, I’ll treat them as my equal. And if our research ends up getting published, they’ll get credit right alongside me.”

Having a publication in your name is an impressive addition to any resume, and the experience also gives students a host of transferable skills, as well as a good story to tell in interviews. Goodner points out that students who worked with him on research projects went on to manage their own labs, become practicing physicians and veterinarians, and more.

In his experience, Goodner says that professors at many colleges are forced to chose: do they want to dedicate their time to research or do they want to dedicate their time to teaching? The beauty of the learning environment at Hiram College, Goodner says, is that he’s been able to do both.

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