Living laboratory: science skills for the real world

April 1, 2019
Lisa Weighton

Spencer Field raises a clear plastic tube to inspect its contents. He watches white matter, previously suspended in a clear liquid, nestle in its base. It’s no more than the amount of sand you could pinch between your fingertips.

“I’m separating the DNA from bacteria,” says the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science (BScES) student as the whirr of the microcentrifuge hums in the background. “We’re modifying organisms, so that’s a pretty cool thing.”

Today’s lesson? Preparing and extracting DNA from two types of organisms: the soil organism Acinetobacter and a safe-to-handle strain of E. coli.

The procedure involves at least two dozen steps of washing, incubating and spinning the cells in various solutions. Skills like these are increasingly necessary for careers in medicine, environmental investigations and forensic science, says Mickie Noble, program head for the BScES program.

“This kind of technology is filtering through everything—from paternity tests to water sampling,” Noble says. “Even if this is the only time they ever do this, they need to be conversant with it because they might be managing people who do this type of work. They know how long it takes and they know what the process looks like.”

On the opposite side of the airy, new laboratory housed in the new Sherman Jen Building, Amanda Craft siphons excess liquid off her sample with a slim plastic pipette.

“These skills could be used anywhere,” Craft says, who has aspirations of working on a research vessel to study marine organisms.

“You may send your samples away to a lab but at least you have an understanding of what’s going on.”

The BScES program is for students looking for hands-on, applied learning of a broad spectrum of skills.

Thanks to the three new labs opened last fall in the Jen Building, students have better opportunities to push the boundaries of environmental science in a modern facility.

They learn everything from microbiology and environmental chemistry to ecotoxicology, and take a range of courses including law, economics and communication.

“It’s a very diverse program,” Noble says.

While the program isn’t designed to churn out specialists in any one field, it provides students with the skills and experience to work with interdisciplinary teams.

“That way, there’s somebody who can speak enough of everybody’s language to pull the team together,” Noble says.

Whether they decide to analyze water samples to find out what organisms live there, or study hummingbird feces to determine their food source based on excreted DNA, they’ll have the skills to do it.

“They come out very well-rounded,” Noble says.

Field says his dream job is to work for the government conducting research on environmental contaminants. He figures that kind of work would give him a mix of both lab work and real-world field experience.

“Everything you’re going to do in the field is a very particular application of what we’ve already learned. So it’s just taking these basic skills and applying them to exactly what the job entails.”