Think back to sixth grade biology… You were learning about animal and plant cells and all the little bits and pieces inside the cell. This includes mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell), ribosomes, the nucleus, and specifically in plants: chloroplasts. 

Chloroplasts are organelles within a plant cell. The National Human Genome Research Institute defines organelle as “a subcellular structure that has one or more specific jobs to perform in the cell, much like an organ does in the body.” Chloroplasts are responsible for housing chlorophyll, the molecule responsible for absorbing the sunlight necessary for photosynthesis within the cell. Chlorophyll absorbs red, orange, and blue light which means that green light is reflected, giving many plants their green color.  

Maybe you haven’t thought about chlorophyll or chloroplasts since sixth grade when you learned about it for the first time. If so, you’d be arm-in-arm with many Hiram students taking a three-week lab course studying photosynthesis. Students of different majors and years attend the class, hoping to learn more, gain research experience, or pursue their passion. 

For the Love of Research

Although the course’s main objective is learning about photosynthesis, instructor Steven P. Romberger, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, coordinator of biochemistry major, and director of the Office of Scholarly Endeavors, has two secondary objectives.

The first objective is instructing students how to isolate chloroplasts. This helps researches standardize their experiments. Inside the cell the chloroplasts are sturdy and stable, but removing them for research makes them fragile and delicate. This leads to significant variations in the isolated chloroplasts, hence the need for standardized protocols.

Dr. Romberger’s second objective includes instilling a love of research in students. The Office of Scholarly Endeavors supports and celebrates student research, scholarship, and creative inquiry across Hiram College’s many disciplines and majors. Engaging in research allows students to learn about things not covered in class and work on unusual and interdisciplinary projects. The research in this course and the students involved exemplify what the Office of Scholarly Endeavors aims to achieve.

How does it work? 

To get chloroplasts, you need a plant. Students take spinach leaves (bought at a local grocery store) and spend time using a mortar and pestle to mash the spinach up. It’s common to use a blender instead of a mortar and pestle, but it can often cause too much damage to the leaves and chloroplasts. 

Once the leaves are mashed, students add a buffer solution. This keeps the cells and chloroplasts hydrated so they don’t break apart easily. 

Charlie Gullet, coordinator of career development at Hiram College and research assistant, explains the next steps, “Once the solution is added, we put it in the centrifuge which separates the damage we don’t want from the chloroplasts we do want. Then we filter it, removing the impurities, and run it back through centrifuge at a higher speed.” This ends with a pellet full of chloroplasts which are put into another solution and run through the JTS-10, a specialized spectrophotometer that follows photosynthetic reactions inside the cell or organelle. 

Interdisciplinary Research at Hiram 

Interdisciplinary Research at Hiram

At Hiram, we boast about our interdisciplinary model, and how students are encouraged to branch outside of their comfort zone and try new things. Nathan Tea, a sophomore environmental studies major with a minor in natural history, did that with this class.

“I love learning and I think this was a challenge for me,” Tea says. “I wanted to challenge myself to be in a class where I have some interest but am not fluent in chemistry or biochemistry.” Dreaming of becoming a field ornithologist, Tea is planning on going to graduate school. He hopes this current research project will help with his goal.

Sydney Ladage, an environmental studies first-year, shares that she initially took the class because of a friend who did research with Dr. Romberger. Ladage needed a class during the spring three-week and decided to take a chance. She reveals, “I like it so far! I’m a little lost because I have not taken a chemistry class before, but I understand the things that I need to know. Plus, Romberger is very forgiving.” 

Although full of challenges, new ideas, and different concepts, Dr. Romberger shares the necessity of research: “All the skills you practice in research, such as problem solving, thinking on your feet, documenting your process and results, communicating your findings… These are all valuable skills in your next steps, whether that’s medical, veterinary, or graduate school; non-profit work; launching a business; or starting a career.”

Using interdisciplinary methods and combining what students are learning in lectures, labs, and life, Hiram College helps students become the best they can be. 

For more information about isolating chloroplasts, read Gullet’s research poster. 

Interdisciplinary Research at Hiram

By Hannah Maxwell