SUNY Cortland students find summer work in research

The following is a republished press release…to submit a community announcement, email Peter Blanchard at [email protected].

Don’t let the empty lecture halls fool you. Buzzing research laboratories in Bowers Hall, the home to scientific discovery at SUNY Cortland, tell a different story during the summer.

For a select group of students, what traditionally would be a three-month vacation turns into a meaningful hands-on research project. Their work covers many disciplines across campus — from archaeology and English to biology and chemistry. Their experience often involves cutting-edge approaches to solving real-world problems. And it also serves as a crucial catalyst for post-college plans.

“I’ve always wanted to go to medical school, but I didn’t want to rule out research completely,” said Jenna Zaia, a senior biomedical sciences major studying how the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease grows with other bacteria found in water samples. “I’ve enjoyed (research) so much that now it has me thinking about the possibility of M.D./Ph.D. programs.”

Zaia, of Phoenix, N.Y., is pursuing research under the guidance of faculty mentor Christa Chatfield, an assistant professor of biological sciences. She’s one of 10 students who earned a Summer Research Fellowship from the College’s Undergraduate Research Council in 2015. It’s an award that covers campus living expenses and provides a $2,750 stipend over eight weeks, from late May to mid-July.

“You can get a lot done working full-time for eight weeks, but it does fly by,” Chatfield said.

In addition to the summer fellows, many other SUNY Cortland students are contributing to the individual grant-supported projects of faculty members. Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Theresa Curtis, for example, currently is working on research related to biosensors — biologically-based devices used to detect substances that are dangerous to humans — thanks to a two-year award of $238,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense. Two young researchers are assisting her: junior Joseph Hannett and recent graduate Eric Plante ’15, a former biomedical sciences major set to pursue a Ph.D. at SUNY Upstate Medical University beginning in the fall.

“I’ve been here eight years and every year more and more students are staying in the summer,” Curtis said. “You walk around the building and there are students everywhere. It’s really become part of the culture.”

The research seed was planted in Zaia’s mind by recently graduated friends in her major. She saw the paths to graduate school that hands-on lab training cleared for them. Her first interaction with Chatfield occurred several years ago, in a required Honors Program seminar on Nobel Prize winners in medicine.

“It was a one-credit class once a week, and there was only one other student,” Zaia said. “But I really enjoyed that interaction. It’s similar to what I’ve experienced this summer.”

Legionella pneumophila infects up to an estimated 18,000 Americans each year, and can be fatal for people with compromised immune systems. The bacteria often can be traced to old construction with aging pipes or air handling systems, especially in the northeast during the summer, Chatfield said. It’s found in fresh water across the world and sometimes even in tap water. But in those rare instances when it flows from the kitchen faucet, it’s usually not a problem, she said; ingesting the bacteria does not cause human infection. The disease is transmitted directly into the lungs when someone inhales high numbers of airborne bacteria. Healthy adults are rarely affected, but people whose immune systems are weakened are vulnerable.

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Theresa Curtis works with young
researchers Eric Plante 
’15, left, and Joseph Hannett. Homepage banner
photo credit: Theresa Curtis; top left photo credit: Christa Chatfield.


Zaia’s research has tested how Legionella pneumophilagrows with other bacteria found in local water samples. The goal is to determine what helps or inhibits its growth in biofilms, or thin layers of microbial communities on the surface of water pipes. It’s microbiology work that requires a high level of patience, she said.

Experiments often take more than a week to complete and require both patience and precision to stay on track. She keeps a detailed notebook, performs prep work and browses other scholarly research in the field to keep her busy during long periods of waiting for the bacteria to grow.

Both Zaia and Chatfield spoke to the importance of analyzing current publications on the topic to stay on the cutting edge of their work. Like all summer fellows, Zaia will present her findings next year at Transformations, the College’s annual conference for student research and creativity. She’ll continue with experiments in the fall and use her results to produce an honors thesis. She would also like to produce a manuscript worthy of publication.

That’s a rare student feat that Plante accomplished last year, before he began working with Curtis on biosensors. His first summer project with her treated horse injuries with stem cells, in an attempt to determine how it might change the wound’s healing rate. Ultimately, their research was published in the Journal of Stem Cell Research and Therapy. The success gave Plante an experience to cite in graduate school interviews and a reason to return for more work this summer, even after graduation.

“The summer is a great time to work with undergraduate students because it’s an uninterrupted time where they get a real taste of what research is all about,” Curtis said. “(Plante and Hannett) read papers, design and execute experiments and analyze data. They’ve both become independent researchers.”

Curtis’ new research on biosensors, which are roughly the size of a microscope slide, involves a gel in the device that could potentially keep cells stable outside of a laboratory environment. The sensors can take can take any cells in the body — brain cells, heart cells, skin cells — and then test their health against environmental samples, such as drinking water, to determine safety. The medical and environmental monitoring applications of cell-based biosensors are endless, Curtis said.

“This is an attempt to make cell-based biosensors even easier to use,” she said. “There’s a great need to keep live cells stable outside of a lab environment … All of the work that’s been done to date is using cell-based biosensors in a laboratory environment, but for them to be used in medical applications or in environmental monitoring, the biosensor needs to have a shelf life and be field portable.”

Preliminary data that Plante and Hannett have helped gather shows that the new encapsulation gel helps keep cells more stable; the challenge for the future remains creating a gel that also can allows samples of potentially harmful environmental or medical substances to pass through freely.

“It’s really great knowing we could potentially help more people, especially those overseas,” said Plante, a Long Beach, N.Y., native who, like Zaia, initially had his sights set on a medical degree when he entered college. “It’s like being in an emergency room. And it’s awesome to know that even doing research, you can still help people.”

Soon, he’ll take a short break from the 9-to-5 lab life he’s come to appreciate over the past two summers, only to start back up again in August as a full-time researcher on a Ph.D. track.

“Most graduate programs are research based,” Plante said. “So getting a taste during the summer of what the next five years are going to be like … that’s invaluable.”

2015 Summer Research Fellowship Awardees

student (major), faculty mentor (department), title of project

Devon Dattmore (biology), Patricia Conklin (biological sciences), Interactive role of VTC3 and GME phosphorylation: the regulation of plant ascorbic acid biosynthesis in Arabidopsis thaliana

Matthew Ellis (chemistry), Karen Downey (chemistry), Computational best practices for modeling group 10 catalytic complexes

Anna Grygiel (biology and English), Peter Ducey (biological sciences), The analysis of scientific literature based on a hypothesis of earthworm invasion in North America

Sarah Kelleher (sociology), Stephen Halebsky (sociology/anthropology), The challenges of being a single mother in rural New York: A life history approach

Meghan Kocijanski (sociology), Anna Curtis (sociology/anthropology), Orange is the New Black: Media images of women in prison

Joseph Kraai (chemistry), Andrew Roering (chemistry), Investigations of nickel catalyzed C-P bond formation

Michelle McGinnis (chemistry), Jeffrey Werner (chemistry), Using LC-MS/MS to identify enzymes used in a bioreactor microbial community to produce hexanoic acid

Stephanie Offutt (archaeology), Sharon Steadman (sociology/anthropology), Continuity or change at prehistoric Çadir Höyük

Elizabeth Claire Toal (psychology), Joshua Peck (psychology), The effects of environmental enrichment on stress in ethanol addicted rats

Jenna Zaia (biology), Christa Chatfield (biological sciences), Legionella pneumophila (Lpn) attachment to biofilms of environmental bacteria


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