Inside the laboratory science building at Lorain County Community College students of all ages and backgrounds come together to apply their knowledge to research projects that seek to answer questions about HIV, toxic water and even whiskey.
Six groups of students will present their most recent findings at the 10th Annual Cleveland State Interdisciplinary Research Conference on Saturday, November 5 at Cleveland State University. The complexity of the projects is astounding – and equally impressive when explained by the students who dedicate their time and energy to science.
“In order to study the mutation, we had to extract the gene, isolate the CCR5 receptor, complete transduction and then inject the gene into some T cells that we grew,” explained Octavia Whitfield as simply as if she was describing the process of making a sandwich.
Whitfield, 15, is a junior in Lorain County Early College High School. She’s from Elyria and is one of a dozen or so Early College and LCCC students who are completing one of four research projects that study gene mutations that could prevent the spread of HIV and lead to a cure for AIDS. The projects are conducted under the instruction of microbiology professor Harry Kestler, Ph.D.
A major breakthrough came last month when one of the HIV teams was able to clone a gene with a mutation that is resistant to the Black Plague and may also be resistant to HIV. For years, LCCC research teams have been working to clone the gene, which was collected from a descendent of the only two survivors of the Black Plague in Sweden in the 1300s.
The breakthrough is huge, and opens the door to new questions and studies, the students explained.
“We’ve been attempting this for years and now that we’ve done it, we’re in a new world,” said Keira Magdos, 17, from Grafton and a senior in Early College High School.
In classroom next door to the HIV research classroom, Early College students Eddie Jackson, 17 from Elyria, and Sydney Calez, 17 from Lorain, turn algae cells into DNA gels that they’re using to research algae blooms in Lake Erie. Their research could lead to the prevention of the toxic blooms that threaten water supply, said microbiology professor Kathy Durham, Ph.D.
Jackson, Calez and their classmates analyze the difference between phosphorus algae blooms found in the Western Basin of Lake Erie and the nitrogen blooms that wreak havoc in the Sandusky Bay area of Lake Erie. The research is done in conjunction with Bowling Green State University.
From the minute students join the research group, they are involved in high-level, technical work, Durham said. Biology major Nicole Kern, 18 from Grafton, joined the group earlier this year.
“I’ve already learned so much about research and about Lake Erie,” she said. “The hardest part has been learning new skills that I hadn’t done before, but everyone is very supportive and it feels good be working on a project that relates to our lives.”
In another classroom inside the Laboratory Science building, students of Regan Silvestri, Ph.D., are using chemistry to manipulate flavor compounds resulting from the production on whiskey. Seven students are working on the project, including one Early College High School student and one high school student who is enrolled in the class as part of the College Credit Plus program through her high school.
Their research involves analyzing experimental whiskey samples created by a novel process called Rapid Pressure Aging. The method uses pressure – as opposed to time – to mature whiskey quickly. The group has identified the flavor compounds in new experimental flavors of whiskey which are completely original, having been made possible only by this innovative technology of accelerated pressure aging, Silvestri explained. These unprecedented bourbon whiskey flavors include cherry, apple, hickory, maple, and honey locust. The project allows students the chance to apply their skills in a unique environment, Silvestri said.
“Education can too often be ‘by the textbook.’ In contrast to routine academic chemistry lab work where students follow pre-set recipes, this work is unstructured and provides a self-guided experience for students.”
Whether studying HIV, algae or whiskey, each LCCC student research group works independently, with little intervention from the professors – and that’s the point.
“Our students are mature and responsible,” Durham said. “I help guide them, but they’re doing the work. They are making their own discoveries.”
Gary Dodson, a 32-year-old student in the University Partnership program with Ashland University echoed that sentiment. Dodson is studying to become a science teacher and is working on one of the HIV research teams, collaborating with LCCC students and Early College High School students.
“There are people with Ph.D.s who are doing this work, and here we are at community college – some of the students are 14 or 18 years old – and we are doing research that could change the world.”