Top U.S. Mental Health Official Speaks at Eastern’s 128th Commencement

                                                                            Eastern Graduates 1,200 Students at XL Center

Written by Ed Osborn

Elinore McCance-Katz

Hartford, CT — Eastern Connecticut State University alumna Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), told the graduates and their families at Eastern Connecticut State University’s 128th Commencement exercises that the current opioid crisis facing the United States is “the nation’s greatest medical challenge since the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. It is a tragedy of major proportions, and we need to work together to help those addicted get treatment and recover from this disease.”

Eastern’s annual graduation ceremony was held at the XL Center in Hartford on May 15, with more than 12,000 family members and friends cheering on their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, as 1,105 undergraduates and 85 graduate students received their diplomas.

McCance-Katz told the audience that Eastern had grown from a small college when she attended Eastern Connecticut State College in the 1970s to become “a comprehensive university that has flourished.”

The commencement speaker also received an honorary doctor of science degree from Eastern in a special hooding ceremony during the graduation exercises.  She graduated magna cum laude from Eastern in 1978 with a degree in biology. Following a sterling career in medicine, psychiatry, academic achievement and public administration, McCance-Katz’s DHHS appointment in August 2017 made her the first assistant secretary-level director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

After earning her degree from Eastern, Dr. McCance-Katz went on to earn a Ph.D. at Yale University in Infectious Disease Epidemiology in 1984, and then received her M.D. from the University of Connecticut in 1987. 

After completing a residency in psychiatry, she held teaching positions at the Yale School of Medicine, Brown University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of California in San Francisco, the University of Texas and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Prior to her HHS appointment, McCance-Katz was Chief Medical Officer of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals from 2015 to 2017, and served as professor of psychiatry and human behavior and professor of behavioral and social sciences at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University.

Describing how her professional journey had taken her from treating AIDS patients in the 1990s to her current national leadership role in treating substance abuse and mental illness, McCance-Katz described federal and state efforts to develop new recovery services and support services.  “We will turn the tide on this epidemic,” she said, urging graduates to get involved as medical professionals, nurses, counselors and social workers.

 “Be adventurous. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Be an advocate for those who have not had the advantages you have had.  There is no greater satisfaction than helping others.”

Eastern President Elsa Núñez

Other speakers at the Commencement Exercises included Eastern President Elsa Núñez; Yvette Meléndez, vice-chairof the Board of Regents for Higher Education; and Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State College and Universities System. Additional members of the platform party included Justin Murphy ’98, president of the ECSU Foundation; Father Laurence LaPointe; and other Eastern officials.

Núñez told the graduates their liberal arts education at Eastern was highly prized by American employers.  “In five separate surveys conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities over the past decade, the vast majority of employers — over 90 percent! — say they are less interested in specialized job proficiencies, favoring instead analytical thinking, teamwork and communication skills — the wide-ranging academic and social competencies available through a liberal arts education.”

Núñez also urged the graduates to give back to their communities, saying, “I know that the majority of our seniors have found ways to donate their time and good will to making our community a better place to live.  Wherever you end up — in Connecticut or beyond — make sure you continue to give a portion of your time to make a difference in your community.” 

Lastly, Núñez encouraged the Eastern seniors to be active citizens as they participate in the American democratic system of self-governance. She quoted New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who has written that disagreement is “the most vital ingredient of any decent society. It defines our individuality, gives us our freedom, enjoins our tolerance, enlarges our perspectives, makes our democracies real, and gives hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere.”

“So never abdicate your responsibilities as a citizen to someone else,” said Núñez. “Be willing to question the status quo.  And stand up for the values you believe in.”

More than 40 percent of the graduates were the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. As Connecticut’s only public liberal arts university, Eastern draws students from 163 of the state’s 169 towns. Approximately 85 percent of graduates stay in Connecticut to launch their careers, contribute to their communities and raise their families.

Senior Class President Charlotte MacDonald presented the Senior Class Gift to President Nunez — an annual Class of 2018 scholarship — and thanked her classmates’ families, friends and faculty for supporting the senior class in its journey. Recalling the Eastern tradition where freshmen toss a penny into a fountain on campus as they make a wish — presumably to graduate in four years — MacDonald shared her own three wishes with her classmates. “My first wish is that you go confidently in the direction of your passions . . . the education you have received at Eastern has prepared you for this.  My second wish is for you not only to better yourself but others around you. Contribute to your community, offer things you no longer use to those in desperate need, volunteer your time . . . My last wish is that you find a path to happiness. . . your willingness to conquer challenges is what will separate you from the majority.”

Meléndez, former vice president of government and community alliances for Hartford Hospital, spoke on behalf of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, expressing gratitude to all who had supported Eastern’s graduates — parents, family, friends and especially Eastern’s faculty. “Their commitment to your success is what makes this university so special. Today is a significant milestone.  We hope today is merely a catalyst for a fulfilling life as each of you pursues your goals.”

Michele Bacholle, Distinguished Professor of the Year

 

Ojakian also offered remarks, commending Eastern President Núñez, her administrative team and “an exceptional faculty that guided you onyour journey to get to today.  The journey is now yours. It is your own path and your own truth that will motivate you . . .  Trust your instincts . . .  You have an obligation to leave this world a better place.  Take charge!”

This year’s graduation ceremonies again reflected Eastern’s Commencement traditions, ranging from the Governor’s Foot Guard Color Guard, to the plaintive sound of the bagpipes of the St. Patrick’s Pipe Band and the pre-event music of the Thread City Brass Quintet. University Senate President Maryanne Clifford presided over the commencement exercises; seniors Halie Poirier, Michael Beckstein and Hannah Bythrow sang “America the Beautiful”; Senior Nathan Cusson gave the invocation; and French Professor Michèle Bacholle was recognized as the 2018 Distinguished Professor Award recipient.

Eastern Student is Connecticut’s only 2018 Goldwater Scholar

Eastern Connecticut State University student Jacob Dayton ’18, a biology major from Bolton, has been awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship for undergraduates in STEM fields who intend to pursue a Ph.D. and research career. Dayton is Eastern’s first Goldwater recipient and intends to attend graduate school in genomics.

“I am truly honored to be a recipient of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship,” said Dayton. “This recognition is a testament to the strength of Eastern’s biology program and the value of the research experiences I have acquired in Dr. Patricia Szczys’ laboratory. Throughout my biology coursework and research at Eastern, I have learned how scholarship and experimental inquiry are engaging and never-ending. The more scientific literature I read, conferences I am able to attend and researchers I meet, the more questions I have. Receiving the Goldwater Scholarship is affirmation that I am on the right track in pursuing a career in research.”

This year 1,280 students from 455 institutions across the country were nominated for a Goldwater scholarship, and 211 were named Goldwater Scholars. Dayton is the only student from a Connecticut institution to receive a Goldwater Scholarship this year. He intends to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular biology, with eventual plans to conduct research in molecular and evolutionary genomics and teach at the university level.

During his time at Eastern, Dayton has conducted research with Biology Professor Patty Szczys to study genetic diversity in roseate terns; collaborated with scientists from France, Poland and the Ukraine on the Whiskered Tern Population Genetic Structure study; published his findings in the peer-reviewed journal “Waterbirds”; and presented at the annual meeting of the International Waterbird Society, the Northeast Region-1 TriBeta Conference and Eastern’s CREATE conference.

In addition to the Goldwater Scholarship, Dayton has received awards ranging from the President’s Award for Research to the Marc Freeman Scholarship to support his summer science research project, and others.

Active on campus, Dayton also served as a research-lab peer mentor, president and secretary of Eastern’s Biology Club, and as a tutor at Windham Middle School.

Dayton was recently accepted into a National Science Foundation-funded research program at the Jackson Laboratory for this coming summer, joining other students from Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Hofstra University, Colorado State University and other institutions.

Written by Ed Osborn

CREATE Conference Shows Breadth and Depth of Eastern Students

Written by Michael Rouleau

Displays of research and creativity filled the Student Center at Eastern Connecticut State University on April 13 for the annual CREATE conference. CREATE stands for “Celebrating Research Excellence and Artistic Talent at Eastern,” and is the University’s premier undergraduate conference of the academic year.

CREATE featured more than 200 students of all majors who led oral and poster presentations, panel discussions, music and dance performances, art and photography exhibitions, as well as documentary viewings and new-media demonstrations.

Students give a musical performance.
A student gives an oral presentation.
Conference patrons peruse the CREATE art gallery.
Students give a theatrical performance.

 

“This conference really cements our slogan that Eastern offers a ‘liberal arts education, practically applied,’” said Brian Oakley, conference co-chair and professor of environmental earth science. “It’s evident when you look around and see the breadth and depth of the work being done by our students.”

“There is no event on campus more important than CREATE,” affirmed Eastern President Elsa Nunez. “Some of the work on display represents three or four years of problem solving, testing and intellectual pursuit. This event is more than a source of pride; it’s a validation of our university’s mission.”

Midway through the conference, two students and two faculty members received awards for undergraduate research and faculty mentorship.

Julie Underhill ’18, who majors in labor relations and human resources management, and Tess Candler ’18, who double majors in political science and economics, received the undergraduate research awards. The faculty awards went to Underhill and Candler’s mentors, respectively: Business Administration Professor Niti Pandey and Political Science Professor Courtney Broscious.

Award recipients Julie Underhill (middle) and Niti Pandey (right) with Provost Dimitrios Pachis.
Award recipients Courtney Broscious (middle) and Tess Candler (right) with Provost Dimitrios Pachis.

 

“Without the professors we cannot celebrate the success of the students,” reminded Provost Dimitrios Pachis, “and without the students we cannot celebrate the success of the professors. This is how the world works, the yin and the yang. With this sort of partnership, we create the future.”

The CREATE conference advances Eastern’s strategic plan by reinforcing high-impact practices such as mentored research and creative projects; increasing the percentage of students who present scholarly work; raising awareness of the accomplishments of Eastern students; and contributing to the intellectual richness of the campus community.

Eastern Students Win Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Awards

Eastern’s 2018 Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Awardees Nadia Balassone ’18 (left) and Yuberki Delgadillo ’18 (right) with Eastern President Elsa Nunez

Written by Anne Pappalardo

WILLIMANTIC, CT (04/19/2018) Eastern Connecticut State University students Nadia Balassone ’18 of East Hartford and Yuberki Delgadillo ’18 of Quaker Hill were named the recipients of the 2018 Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award on April 17. The 30th annual Henry Barnard Awards Banquet, held at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville, CT, recognized 12 outstanding undergraduates from Connecticut’s four state universities – Central, Eastern, Southern and Western.

The Barnard Awards program is the premier academic recognition event of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System (CSCU) and is sponsored by the CSCU Foundation. To be considered for the award, a student must have at least a 3.75 GPA, a record of community service and be nominated by their respective university president.

Balassone, an English and Business Administration major, carries a 3.89 GPA and is on the Dean’s List. She is a writing tutor and received the Academic Excellence Scholarship. She is also president of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honor society, staff writer for the student-run Campus Lantern newspaper and was vice president of the Entrepreneurship Club. She has an internship at the Institute of Sustainable Energy, where she helped pilot the Sustainable CT statewide certification program, represented at the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, and completed an internship at Waste Management National Accounts, where she gained insight into recycling. She volunteers at an animal shelter and plans to pursue law school to work the sustainability field in environmental or animal law. Balassone was recently accepted at Quinnipiac Law School for the fall term.

“From the minute I stepped foot on Eastern’s campus, I could tell it was a community,” said Balassone. “I think that was one of the biggest deciding factors for me coming to Eastern. I wanted a sense of community and I wanted that support.

“Working as a peer tutor at the Writing Center has shaped me as a writer. I’ve learned how to communicate and reach back into my community. Receiving the Barnard Scholar Award is a huge honor for me. I would say it really punctuates the sense of community at Eastern for me,” she added.

“When Nadia worked in our Writing Center as a peer tutor, it turned her on to the world of rhetoric and composition,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “Combine that with her work in the Institute of Sustainable Energy and you can see why she plans to enter law school this fall in pursuit of environmental law. Nadia’s mom says he daughter is going to save the world and I’m convinced it will happen.”

Delgadillo, a Biology major, carries a 3.85 GPA and is also on the Dean’s List. She is an award-winning resident assistant, widely known for her leadership and scholarship. She is co-president of the Pre-Health Society and a member of the Tri-Beta National Biology Honor Societ, as well as a member of the Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society. She has also been a teaching assistant at Eastern, and presented her research at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research at the University of Central Oklahoma earlier this month.

Delgadillo works as a certified nursing assistant at St. Joseph’s Living Center and volunteers at Backus Hospital. She also participated in a pre-medical urban enrichment program at Cooper Medical School and will be travelling to Ghana this coming summer for a public health internship. Her goal is to become a nurse practitioner and eventually a nurse educator.

“The last four years at Eastern have definitely been years of growth,” said Delgadillo. “I had so many opportunities and I took every opportunity I had – just to learn about myself.

“I became interested in health care because of my experiences here at Eastern. I’ve loved helping people and sending people to the resources they need. Receiving the Henry Barnard Award is an honor. I feel like it truly reflects my past four years of being so involved – I feel like it’s really paid off.”

“Yuberki has combined her love of science and love of people to pursue her interest in nursing and plans to attend UConn’s School of Nursing next January,” said Núñez. “As a Biology major she has done research on Alzheimer’s disease and spent the six weeks last summer refining her interests and skills in medicine. She is now preparing to be certified as a medical interpreter to assist doctors with Spanish-speaking patients.

“Her hero is her mother, who was the first college graduate in her family back home in the Dominican Republic. She wants to make a difference in the lives of women and the elderly – and I know she will,” added Núnez.

Hartford native Henry Barnard was one of the principal forces in creating the American public school system in the 19th century, serving in the Connecticut General Assembly before becoming superintendent of schools in Connecticut and principal of the New Britain Normal School in 1850. He became the first U.S. commissioner of education in 1867.

 

Eastern to hold Ninth Annual Service Expo and Awards Ceremony

WILLIMANTIC, CT (04/11/2018) Eastern Connecticut State University will hold its annual Service Expo and Awards Ceremony on April 19 from 2-5 p.m. in the lobby of the Fine Arts Instructional Center. Sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), the event will showcase the numerous service projects being spearheaded by Eastern students in the Windham area.

Student volunteers will present posters describing their projects, which have occurred at more than 30 sites in the region. Guest judges from the community and Eastern faculty and staff will present awards for the best programs.

Awards will be given to the following individuals: Service Learning Award – Denise Matthews, professor of communication at Eastern; Community Program Award – Christy Calkins and Journey House Program at Natchaug Hospital; and Community Engagement Awards to Nancy Brennan, Interfaith Campus Ministry, Erin Corbett and student Makayla Mowel.

The expo will kick off with keynote speaker Erin Corbett of Second Chances, an education program within the Connecticut prison system. The event is open to the public. For more information, contact the CCE at (860) 465-0090.

4 Women Honored at Eastern’s Annual Ella Grasso Awards

Award-winners Laurel Cannon, Donna Mims and Regina Lester-Harriat

Written by Jordan Corey

WILLIMANTIC, CT (04/03/2018) Eastern Connecticut State University’s annual Ella T. Grasso Distinguished Service Awards ceremony took place on March 28. Those honored included student Laurel Cannon of Ellington; English Professor Maureen McDonnell; and community members Donna Mims and Regina Lester-Harriat, who are leaders of the Pretty Brown Girl Club #85 at Metacomet Elementary School in Bloomfield.

Eastern student Laurel Cannon won the Student Award at the 2018 ceremony

The Student Award went to Laurel Cannon of Ellington, a senior who is double majoring in biology and psychology. Passionate about uplifting women in diverse ways, she founded the Cannon Project, an organization with a mission to educate, empower and support women of color. By promoting academic excellence and healthy lifestyle choices to ensure future success, Cannon hopes that the group can become a beneficial resource for minority women. “I plan to nurture this organization to its full potential,” she stated.

Regina Lester-Harriat and Donna Reed Mims received the Community Award for their work with the Pretty Brown Girl Club at Metacomet Elementary School in Bloomfield. The club is a component of the Pretty Brown Girl movement, which is dedicated to empowering girls at a young age.

“It’s an honor and it’s an obligation to be part of the community,” said Lester-Harriat, the school’s social worker and supervisor of the Student and Family Assistance Center. She noted that as somebody with a good upbringing, and good teachers to guide her along the way, she feels it is her mission to give something back to the children she works with. “They are so excited because they are a part of something special. It’s a blessing to be part of that journey.”

The recipient of the Faculty/Staff Award was English Professor Maureen McDonnell, who actively focuses on gender equity, anti-racist work and disability rights as the director of Eastern’s women’s and gender studies program. She played a major role in establishing Eastern as the only Connecticut public university that grants a degree in women’s and gender studies. Unable to attend the ceremony due to a conference, McDonnell pre-recorded a video message expressing her thanks and assuring her dedication to intersectional studies.

Keynote speaker Shelby Brown addresses the crowd

The keynote speaker – described by Eastern President Elsa Núñez as a “community activist in the best sense of the word”- was Shelby Brown, managing director of Everyday Democracy, a national organization dedicated to building an equitable, participatory democracy at all levels. She previously served as executive administrator of the Connecticut Office of Governmental Accountability.

Brown called on the audience to consider how a woman from a marginalized group might gain access to certain domains and how her experiences could differ from those of others. “How would she know that her voice matters?” She discussed the experiences of her mother, an “entrepreneur and fashionista” who worked tirelessly in pursuit of her own aspirations and instilled in Brown an understanding of why women are remarkable.

Brown touched on the necessity of assisting those who cannot claim their own voice, something that Everyday Democracy aims to do. “We have all contemplated the question ‘How can we do better?'” she asked. “‘Who can help us make a difference?'” She emphasized the power of “seeing yourself in the solution” and encouraged everyone to take ownership of public issues.

Eastern Students Assist in Biology Research Project

Christianne Senechal and Biology Professor Amy Groth

 Written by Anne Pappalardo

Undergraduate research and creative activities at Eastern Connecticut State University provide opportunities for students to work closely with faculty mentors on research or creative work. Projects are aligned with the faculty mentor’s expertise and designed to expose students to professional activities within a chosen field. Specific activities vary with each experience and by discipline.

Eastern Connecticut State University Biology majors Christianne Senechal ’18 of Amston and Jonathan Rappi ’18 of Southington are assisting Eastern Biology Professor Amy Groth with a complex research project that uses microscopic worms to study genes that are important for human development and disease, including cancer.

During her research, Senechal has learned the dedication it takes to achieve results. “The research that I have done at Eastern has helped me learn to think critically and persevere,” said Senechal. “These values are important regardless of what path someone takes. I never thought that research would be a path I would consider taking, but I have come to enjoy the process very much and believe that what I have learned will carry over into whatever career I pursue.” said Senechal.

Jonathan Rappi and Professor Amy Groth

“The biggest lesson I have learned is that science takes a very long time and lots of trial and error,” said Rappi. “Of the results that we did achieve, I was surprised one gene that was inhibited seemed to cause the worms to develop more slowly than usual. We could observe this phenomenon with a normal microscope because the worms without this particular gene were smaller than normal. This observation showed me the power of genetics.”

“All of the research in Eastern’s Biology Department is conducted by our extremely talented undergraduates in collaboration with a faculty member,” said Groth, who teaches courses in genetics, biotechnology, molecular genetics and the biology of cancer. “The student researchers are utilizing cutting-edge techniques such as RNA interference and confocal microscopy to study genetic pathways in nematodes. The findings will shed light on how those pathways function in human development and disease.”

The students believe that undergraduate research benefits students because it provides them with a true appreciation for the amount of work, dedication and effort that is involved, and that it is an opportunity for students to build relationships with professors by working closely with them.

“It also helps students to learn in a different way than in a normal classroom setting. Students must be creative and solve unique problems rather than just memorize information for a test,” said Rappi.

“When performing independent research, students learn the variability in research, including how to devise protocols that work for their own experiments and how there are often a number of explanations for why things may go wrong,” said Senechal. “and since undergraduate research is performed under the mentorship of a professor, there is always someone for the student to turn to when they need help.” 

“Professor Groth helps determine the direction of my research. We often spend time discussing the results of my experiments and how we should proceed based on those results,” explains Senechal. “She supervises me when I am learning how to carry out protocols for different procedures, until I am capable of working on them independently. Since my research is essentially a branch of her area of research, Professor Groth is a knowledgeable resource who I can turn to when I am unclear on direction.”

Rappi also credits Groth with guiding him through the research process by offering suggestions, answering questions and teaching him laboratory techniques. “She encourages me to take charge of my project and to be independent.”

After graduating, Senechal plans to take a year off to conduct more research or work as a medical assistant before applying to medical school. Her interests include medical genetics, emergency medicine and specialties such as oncology. Rappi is interested in pursuing a research career.

Both will be presenting their research at two research conferences in April; Eastern’s Celebrating Research Excellence an Artistic Talent at Eastern conference and the Eastern Colleges Science Conference in Ithaca, NY.

 

Eastern to hold Annual Ella Grasso Awards on March 28

Governor Ella Grasso

Written by Jordan Corey

WILLIMANTIC, CT (03/20/2018) Eastern Connecticut State University will hold its annual Ella T. Grasso Distinguished Service Awards ceremony on March 28 from 3-4 p.m. in the Student Center Theatre. The event is open to the public. Born in Windsor Locks, Grasso became the governor of Connecticut in 1974, making her the first woman-elected governor in the United States. She was notable for her policies on education and health.

This year’s award recipients will be Eastern student Laurel Cannon of Ellington, who double majors in biology and psychology; Eastern English professor Maureen McDonnell; and community members Donna Mims and Regina Lester-Harriat, who are leaders of the Pretty Brown Girl Club #85 at Metacomet Elementary School in Bloomfield.

The Grasso Awards, established in 2009, recognize people who demonstrate courage, perseverance and leadership by promoting justice and peace. Previous recipients include 2014 winner Betsy Wade, the first woman to be a copy editor at The New York Times; 2015 winner Cara Bergstrom-Lynch, Eastern professor of sociology; 2016 winner Leigh Duffy, director of the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center; and 2017 winner Valerie Vance, Eastern sociology student and veteran of the United States Navy.

Written by Jordan Corey

Eastern professors use NASA grant to research antimicrobial resistance

Matthew Graham and Barbara Murdoch discuss their research goals of finding new antibiotics

Written by Jolene Potter

WILLIMANTIC, CT (02/27/2018) Matthew Graham, a biology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, is currently one of three university professors across Connecticut with a research grant from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium (CTSGC). Working closely with fellow biology professor Barbara Murdoch, their team is conducting a research project titled “Knock, Knock, Who’s There? A Diversity Discovery Mission of Unculturable Bacteria in Scorpions.”

Graham holds a California Dune Scorpion (with its stinger removed), a subject of his research with Murdoch

Graham and Murdoch are testing bacteria naturally found in the abdomens of scorpions for their ability to produce new kinds of antibiotics. Their focus on finding new antibiotics is due to the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance, which is the ability of a microbe–such as a virus, bacterium or fungus–to be resistant to antibiotic drugs that had previously been useful in treating them.

Declared a “fundamental global threat to human life, food production, economic development and security” by the United Nations, there is an urgent need to discover new antibiotics that combat dangerous microbes that have developed resistance. “Each year, 25,000 Americans die because our current antibiotics cannot kill their infections,” said Murdoch. “Bacterial infections are a growing concern in space, too. As most antibiotics used today were isolated from bacteria, the discovery of new antibiotics requires the discovery of new bacteria.”

Graham and Murdoch hope to identify new bacteria from scorpions. One may wonder how studying bacteria in scorpions could facilitate the pursuit of new antibiotics. Interestingly, scorpions are an ancient lineage that have evolved alongside microbes and potential pathogens for several hundred million years. Murdoch points out that there is a possibility that scorpions have formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria that produce antibiotics to protect the scorpions. In a symbiotic relationship, two species live together. Many organisms are involved in symbiotic relationships, because this interaction provides benefits to both species.

Eastern Professor Barbara Murdoch demonstrates how tester bacteria will not grow near bacteria with antibiotic components

The suite of microorganisms that live in and on scorpions is largely unknown, and surprisingly understudied, explained Graham. With a series of sophisticated molecular techniques performed by Eastern students, Graham and Murdoch hope their research will enhance the skill set and future opportunities for their students, and reveal “the collection of bacteria found in two different scorpion species, at a level of unprecedented detail,” said Graham.

“There is only a small portion of DNA we are interested in, and we use these molecular techniques to isolate and create millions of copies of this DNA to determine which bacterial species are present,” said Murdoch. The bacterial DNA is then sent to Harvard University for the final steps in the DNA sequencing process, where each individual letter forming the sequence is revealed. The resulting sequences determine what species are present, as “individual sequences of DNA are like the name tags, or barcodes, for each bacterial species.”

Graham and Murdoch then examine prior research literature to determine if the bacteria found in scorpions have been known to cause human illness or produce antibiotics. The research has implications for treating antimicrobial resistance on earth and in space.

Antimicrobial resistance contributes to NASA’s overarching goal of human space exploration because under microgravity conditions, bacteria are able to grow and evolve more quickly than they do under Earth’s gravitational conditions. Therefore, the development of new antibiotics that pathogens have not yet become resistant to is crucial to long-term manned space flight.

“The discovery of new antibiotics would benefit the medical community and space exploration,” writes the CTSGC, “seeing as antibiotic resistance increases under microgravity and human immune systems weaken during missions.”

Eastern Student Lauren Atkinson Wins NASA Scholarship

                                         Grant Will Help Study Antibiotic Resistance

Lauren Atkinson, left, and her research mentor Barbara Murdoch in the lab.

Written by Jolene Potter

Lauren Atkinson ’18, a Biology major at Eastern Connecticut State University from Harwinton, is one of 28 graduate or undergraduate students across Connecticut to receive a summer research fellowship from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium (CTSGC). Atkinson is using the scholarship to support her research titled “Evaluating the Scorpion Microbiome for Diversity and Antibiotic Production.”

Atkinson and Biology Professor Barbara Murdoch are testing bacteria naturally found in the abdomens of scorpions for their ability to produce antibiotics. Their focus on finding new antibiotics is due to the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance. Antimicrobial resistance is the ability of a microbe such as a virus, bacterium, or fungus to resist drugs that had been useful in treating them.

“The United Nations has declared antimicrobial resistance a fundamental global threat to human life, food production, economic development and security,” said Atkinson. “One step in responding to this threat is to develop new drugs that microbes have not developed resistance to.”

One may wonder how studying the bacteria in scorpions may help in the pursuit of new antibiotics. However, Atkinson pointed out that scorpions are an ancient lineage that has evolved alongside many terrestrial pathogens that they are exposed to in their diets. “We hypothesize that scorpions have formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria that produce antibiotics which protect the scorpions from these pathogens,” said Atkinson.

Antimicrobial resistance contributes to NASA’s overarching goal of human space exploration because under microgravity conditions, bacteria are able to grow and evolve more quickly than they do under Earth’s gravitational conditions. Therefore, the development of new antibiotics that pathogens have not evolved resistance for is crucial to long-term manned space flight.

“The discovery of new antibiotics would benefit the medical community and space exploration,” writes the CTSCG, “seeing as antibiotic resistance increases under microgravity and human immune systems weaken during missions.”