Seward County Community College science students enrolled in the Bridges program will do more than step out of the lab this semester to keep up with classes, meals, and homework. Kevin Loya, Emily Gibson, Emireth Monarrez, and Blanca delaTorre are headed to Phoenix, Ariz., to present research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.
SCCC biology instructor and Bridges to K-State coordinator Myron Perry said he was “incredibly excited” when he learned the group’s abstract had been accepted.
“The students found out by email a week before I did, and they kept it a secret to surprise me,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not sure they understood what a big deal this is.”
Perry, who stepped in as Bridges coordinator at SCCC in 2015, said the invitation to present is an honor.
“We’ve been attending the ABRCMS conference for a while, because it gives them the opportunity to experience what they can do in science, with other students just like them who are going on to PhD programs,” he said. This year is different.
“Now we’re not just attending and absorbing, we’re actually participating,” he said. “These students are actual researchers showing off what we can do. There’s not a lot of community colleges doing research, so we are going up against a lot of the big boys from four-year institutions.”
As part of the poster presentation category, the students will take part in what is essentially a high-tech, grown-up version of a science fair. Dressed professionally and prepped with notes, they will talk with visitors and with event judges about the poster that describes their research.
“They’ll have to answer questions, rather than doing a formal presentation, and I chose that format because it’s a completely new experience for them,” Perry said. Even so, “I think they’re a little nervous.”
That’s all right, he added: The experience is intended to empower science students from out-of-the-way places and backgrounds marked by many “firsts.”
“Many of the Bridges students at SCCC are the first in their family to go to college, and when they enter this field, they may find they are the first of their background to work in a particular lab or profession,” Perry said. “ABRCMS is designed to address those situations.”
According to the organization’s materials, “when you attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), you join one of the largest communities of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. During the four-day conference, over 1,800 students from over 350 colleges and universities participate in poster and oral presentations in twelve STEM disciplines. All undergraduate student presentations are judged and those receiving the highest scores in each scientific discipline will be given an award during the closing banquet.” The conference also connects students with government agencies looking to hire.
That’s heady stuff for students who spent their summer trekking back and forth from Perry’s microbiology lab at SCCC. The project’s focus is to research and analyze the effects of hog husbandry and runoff use on the quality of air, particularly in regard to MRSA infections. When the liquid manure dries in the High Plains climate, Perry said, “it still has bacteria in it, and that eventually becomes airborne.”
Students collected air and water samples, identified the strains of bacteria able to live in both, and have since moved on to test the effects of essential oils in stopping bacterial growth, as compared to the use of antibiotics. Perry says it’s difficult to boil down the complexity and scope of the research, which also looks at antibiotic resistance resulting from husbandry practices, the way the general population is exposed to various bacteria, and the overall health implications. All that sounds impressive, but the research leading up to presentations is slow, tedious, and often boring, he said, “and you have to get past that part of the process.”
“The abstract we submitted was describing not only the research over the summer, but everything we’ve done thus far,” he said. “I have three years of research going on this.”
Perry worked with the students to draft a concise description of the work, the data, and the importance and application of the research.
“They hadn’t done a lot of that type of writing, so what I like to do is let them come up with something, we review it, make corrections, and work at it some more. It has to be student-driven.”
When the group gets off the plane in Phoenix next month, Perry said, the long hours will pay off.
“Last year, when I took the kids, maybe two of them had actually been outside of Liberal or Seward County, outside of the tristate area, other than where they traveled for sports,” he said. “It’s easy to forget that getting on an airplane, flying to another city, that is an eye-opening experience for our Bridges kids.”
While at the conference, they will meet American researchers from big-name institutions and people from all over the world. They will eat at unusual restaurants — Perry is a fan of French gourmet food — and sample cultural experiences unavailable in Southwest Kansas. Perry said he hopes the experience at ABRCMS is only the first step his students take in long and successful careers in the biomedical field.
“They have a bright future ahead of them, with opportunities I only dreamed about when I was their age,” he said. “The research they get to do at SCCC is the introduction and when they move on to LSAMP, our partner program with K-State during the next summer, they are able to hit the ground running.
“The students they receive from our program are highly valued at K-State. The researchers at don’t have to babysit them in the lab. They know how to do research.”
Perry himself will be part of the ABRCMS conference, as he was selected to judge entries.
“I know how to present, I know how to get prepared, but this is a different aspect of it and I’m honored,” he said. “I thought I was going to be able to walk around and network, but I’ve got a job to do now. It’s going to be pretty exciting.”
At the end of the day, Perry said he wants his students to come home from the conference with a greater sense of connection to the world.
“You’re doing impactful work, research that one day could make difference,” he said. “When they realize that, it’s powerful.”