By Elyse Pitkin

Rising juniors, Madison (Maddie) Buckles and Rafah Hussain have dedicated their summer to science. Over the last 10 weeks, Buckles and Hussain have participated in a summer research opportunity alongside Dr. Brad Goodner, Director of School of Health & Medical Humanities, focusing on various ways bacteria capture light energy.

“This project focuses on a very different way that some bacteria capture light energy than the usual way involving chlorophyll (green pigment found in plants, algae and most photosynthetic bacteria).  We are making good progress on this project so far,” said Goodner.

Buckles and Hussain are using skills they learned in Goodner’s Genetics course to find, clone, and characterize genes encoding light-harvesting proteins called proteorhodopsins.  Several species of bacteria in the ocean, lakes, rivers, and on the soil surface have been found to use proteorhodopsins to capture some additional energy from light absorption.

“In one experiment, we are trying to determine the extent to which the activity of proteorhodopsins impacts the growth of bacteria under different conditions – for example when there are lots of nutrients around versus starvation conditions,” said Hussain.

In a second experiment, Hussain and Buckles are looking at five different lake water samples to see how microbial communities respond to different wavelengths of light.  They do this by incubating the lake water samples, each with its own microbial community, in tubes with very low levels of nutrients.  The tubes are wrapped with different colored cellophane that will allow different wavelengths of light to enter the tube. Most photosynthetic organisms use red and blue light for photosynthesis, but different proteorhopsins can absorb blue, green, or yellow light.

“These experiments will allow us to look for more bacteria that use proteorhodopsins to capture energy, but they also help us better understand how different bacteria make a living. We can look for species that use carbon dioxide to build their own organic material or that use nitrogen gas from the atmosphere instead of relying on nitrogen from fertilizers,” said Buckles. “This knowledge can possibly determine how we might take carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and redirect them to the soil to help with plant growth. It could potentially help with farming, reducing pollution, and help with the health of plants in certain ecosystems.”

Goodner incorporates his research program into the lab components of his courses because he wants to give all students a taste of real research.  Plus, it helps students integrate their learning from several courses into a real-world context.  Goodner also believes it is a great way to recruit students for independent research projects. “Research experience gives students more self-confidence, helps them hone their experimental thinking, critical analysis and communication skills, and gives them a great story to tell in interviews,” said Goodner.

“It’s been rewarding work,” said Buckles. “I find that I’ve become more comfortable in the lab and can work more efficiently.”

“Summer research has allowed me to focus on other things that don’t necessarily relate to my career, but I can still learn from,” said Hussain. “When I applied for dental school, my focus was related to creating more environmentally friendly dental equipment. A lot of the research we do here and the equipment we use, allows me to think of more efficient and sustainable ways I can work. Research is the best form of problem-solving.”

Both students have dreams of pursuing medicine. Hussain is a biology major and international studies minor while Buckles is a biomedical humanities major and Spanish, biology, and psychology minor.

“It’s always been an internal thing,” said Hussain. “I have been preparing since high school to go into dentistry.” Currently, Hussain is part of Hiram’s Hiram’s 3+4 Professional Scholars Program Hiram has with Case Western Reserve University’s (CWRU) School of Dental Medicine. “I’m always looking at people’s teeth!” She laughed.

“And I’m always looking at people’s skin,” Buckles added. “My interest in going into the medical field started when I was thirteen and diagnosed with stage three spitzoid melanoma, a form of skin cancer. That’s what lead me to pre-med and especially biomedical humanities.”  

“They are outstanding students and are committed to careers in medicine,” said Goodner.

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