Michael Zulch ’17 gets excited when he talks about technology. But it’s not a new phone, or even a new app: it’s a digital polymerase chain reaction (PCR) system.
The new digital PCR system “is quite a big deal,” said Michael, a biology major. “It allows us to count DNA molecules, and that is important because if we have a specific target of DNA that identifies a bacteria, this machine will allow us to specifically count the amount of bacteria species in a sample.”
Having the machine at Elms “not only will be bring all of that on campus, but it will reduce the cost and time needed to process the samples” off site, he added.
Other new equipment in the bio lab includes a Qubit fluorometer, which is “high-tech and really cool,” Michael said, and “gives us a quantification of how much DNA is in a sample,” and a freezer that cools to -80℃, a temperature low enough to ensure no degradation of samples.
Since he was a freshman, the Ludlow native has participated in a metagenomic study involving microbes in the guts of horses for biology Professor Janet Williams, Ph.D.
The microorganisms found in horse guts are analogous to those in humans, and the research at Elms is working to establish the benchmarks for what “normal” is, Michael said.
“If you draw conclusions with the similarities between the anatomy of horses and humans, and then the similarities between drugs that are used on horses versus humans, we might find some interesting correlations to the ways that these drugs respond to the microbiome,” Michael said, adding, “or how the microbiome responds to these drugs that can be utilized in human research.”
That could make the Elms database “beneficial for researchers, pharmaceutical companies, feed companies, and even veterinarians,” he said.
His work, “Effects of Anthelminthic Treatments on the Microbiome of the Horse,” received an award for Outstanding Poster Presentation at the Eastern Colleges Science Conference at Niagara University in April.
Getting to conduct research as an undergraduate is uncommon at many colleges and universities, but here at Elms, “if a student shows an interest, they’re in” the lab working, Williams said.
“This is an exciting time to be a science major at Elms,” said Nina Theis, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, who recently received a research grant of nearly $32,000 from the National Science Foundation as part of a larger collaborative $2 million study of biological diversity, evolution and the evolutionary process of species origination in the tropics.
Theis also is the director of the ElmSTEM program, which awards scholarships to students majoring in STEM fields such as biology and chemistry. The program also provides opportunities for lab and field research.
The research opportunities available at Elms enables students to “Elms College as a platform essentially to go on to either graduate school or medical school, or any of the health professions,” Williams said.
“Research is a great experience for any student,” Theis said. “It requires a lot of diligence and a lot of independence, and in order to get into graduate school these days, you have to have research experience.”
Postbaccalaureate premed students Sotiris Chaniotakis of Belmont, MA, and Matthew Marotta of Longmeadow agree. Both came to Elms as graduates of the exercise science (now kinesiology) program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and both entered the postbac premed program to strengthen their knowledge of high-level biology and chemistry. They also both began working in the lab this semester with Michael Zulch.
“Medical schools place a lot of weight on if you’ve done scientific research,” said Sotiris, whose first choice for medical school is Tufts. “To be familiar with a laboratory setting.”
“And problem solving, and organization and procedure,” added Matt, who hopes to become a physician’s assistant after medical school. “And the way medicine is going right now, a lot of emphasis is being put on the human genome, and the microbiome, so sequencing the horse’s gut is a good way to practice and learn the techniques and the equipment used.”