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Eastern’s Tiny Earth Day lures high school students to the lab

Published on April 30, 2024

Eastern’s Tiny Earth Day lures high school students to the lab

Eastern student Nick Tiziani demonstrates a lab procedure for the Norwich students.

Norwich Academy students learned about lab safety and microbiology techniques.

Eastern students (from left) Dominique Christman, Giahna Crespo-Ellis and Ajah Reese-Mcknight at the lab demonstration

Senior Billi Kozak explains their research project to the high school students.

Thirteen students from Norwich Free Academy learned laboratory techniques and the impact of microbiology research in a recent visit to Eastern Connecticut State University ‘s Tiny Earth Day biology symposium.

For the third year, students from Norwich participated in lab demonstrations and learned about undergraduate research from students in Professor Jonathan Hulvey’s general microbiology class. The Norwich students brought dirt samples they collected near their school to Eastern to be analyzed as part of a national Tiny Earth effort to discover antibiotics from soil bacteria. The program involves 517 higher education institutions looking for new sources of effective antibiotics.

The Norwich samples this year yielded seven species of bacteria that were analyzed by Eastern students, who sequenced the samples’ DNA and conducted biochemical tests on them. What the students found will be sent to a “Tiny Earth Chemistry Hub” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the program originated. Hulvey also will analyze the results in his own research.

Aside from the search for new antibiotics, said Hulvey, “the overarching goal here is to get students excited about doing research.” Working in a lab on a problem that has broad impact, such as the search for new antibiotics, can motivate students to study biology, he noted.

The high school students also got a primer on lab safety. They visited five lab stations overseen by Eastern biology students, where they learned techniques such as culturing microbes from the soil, testing for safe prospects for antibiotic production and gene sequencing. They also had hands-on experience with simple procedures, Hulvey said.

“My students loved our day at your lab and thought the presentations were great,” said Jason Croteau, the Norwich Academy science teacher.

The students heard presentations from three Eastern students, Pearl Kwadzi ’26, Billi Kozak ’24 and John O’Connell ’24, on their own biology research. Professor Barbara Murdoch, biology department head, spoke to them about the genesis of Tiny Earth program. Murdoch was mentored at Yale University by the Tiny Earth founder, Jo Handelsman, who now directs the institute at the University of Wisconsin where Tiny Earth is based.

Written by Lucinda Weiss