February 28, 2017
Bacteria may be small, but the effect they have on us is anything but minor. Bacteria are often associated with illness and disease, but in reality, most do us more good than harm. Although certain bacteria can wreak havoc on your health, many are important for our survival. In fact, the microbes in our body outnumber our own cells.
In Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, a team of seven undergraduate researchers in Assistant Professor Shikha Nangia’s research group has published research in the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation identifying the diverse properties of eight bacteria species’ membranes, including the harmful (i.e. pertussis, chlamydia, and salmonella) and the beneficial (i.e. E coli and H pylori).
Nangia says, “By studying the outer membranes of these eight bacterial species, we’re hoping to identify similarities, differences, and vulnerabilities. Our research contributes to the broader scientific community’s understanding of this topic where it can be used to exploit these properties with a new class of therapeutics.”
Perhaps the most notable element of this research is that it was conducted by undergraduate students over the course of ten weeks last summer. The team includes Natalie Edelstein ’18, Jerry Gomez ’17, Aliza Khan ’17, Masud Llewellyn ’17, Tara Picudella ’17, Sarah Willsey ’17, Dan Cummins (University of Southern California), and graduate student Huilin Ma.
“This was an excellent opportunity to learn about different forms of bacteria using computational modeling,” said Khan.
In addition to learning about bacteria and becoming a published researcher, the opportunity provided the participating students with a valuable experience working together as a cohesive unit. Cummins said, “One thing that sticks in my mind is how collaborative our research was. Most of us weren’t familiar with the systems we worked with, or even the field of molecular dynamics, but we came together and helped each other whenever someone got stuck. Everything we did was done as a group, from background research to helping each other with each of our respective bacteria. I’m proud of what we accomplished together.”
Through the College’s research experience for undergraduates (REU) program, many engineering and computer science students have the opportunity to stay on campus during the summer and perform research such as this in faculty labs. They earn stipends, supported by corporate funding, research grants, National Science Foundation (NSF) REU supplements, and departmental funding. These competitive opportunities exist across Syracuse University’s engineering and computer science programs.
Picudella recommends the program to her fellow undergrads. She says, “Talk to your professors and see what their research is in and see if it interests you. Research is often overlooked for summer experiences because people want internships but I would highly suggest looking into this option. This past summer was my favorite summer of my college career.”
These students were supported by a variety of funding sources, including the NSF, the Student Association, the Vice Chancellor and Provost for Academic Affairs, the Associate Provost for Academic Programs, and the Vice President for Research, and Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, Syracuse University, and the College of Engineering and Computer Science Dean’s Leadership Fund.
Another instrumental piece to this research is the outstanding support from Research Computing within Information Technology Services. Their team provides computing resources to advance research, as well as opportunities for undergraduate students to interact with advanced computing systems.
In the end, this research provided an incredible experience for undergraduates and advanced the research of the College and the biomedical field. And, who knows, someday we may all be healthier because of it.