Connor Brown attributes his interest in research to experience he got before coming to Virginia Tech.

While working on his associate’s degree at Virginia Western Community College, Brown was asked to participate in a new collaboration between some of the college’s science faculty and a microbiologist at Virginia Tech. The project’s goal was to offer authentic research training for students, including hands-on data collection and laboratory practice.

“I would not be where I am, or going where I’m going, without it,” said Brown, of Bedford, Virginia, now a junior majoring in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences after transferring to Virginia Tech last year.

Brown is one of 14 recipients of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a new program created by Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute and the university’s Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology, in partnership with the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The goal of the program is to increase diversity in undergraduate research. Each Fellow receives $1,000 to conduct research with a Virginia Tech faculty mentor over the course of one academic year.

Connor recently presented his work at the 2017 Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship Showcase in Fralin Hall. The event involved a reception, poster session, and brief remarks by Dean and Thanassis Rikakis, executive vice president and provost at Virginia Tech.  

Connor Brown presents his poster
Connor Brown, of Bedford, Virginia, a junior majoring in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, presents his research at the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship showcase held April 20, 2017, at Fralin Life Science Institute. Photo by Melissa Ripepi.

Brown jumped right in as the project’s first recruit. Along with faculty members at the college, he began modifying protocols for bacteria sampling around the campus based on methods in the college’s microbiology class.

While developing the plans, Brown read scientific literature about where bacteria  — specifically Legionella, which can cause Legionnaire’s disease — have been found in order to investigate where to collect samples at the school.

“One of the things we found while working on the protocol was that eyewash stations in laboratories tend to be positive for strains of Legionella, so we included these stations, as well as others,” said Brown.

Over the next semester, Brown worked with a team of seven students to collect samples from around campus, including eyewash and dental stations. The group then used specific techniques to identify the species they found, and grew (or cultured) them for further study.

“There are twofold benefits to the project,” said Brown. “Community college students get to participate in a research project where they learn and use these basic skills. And two, this accrues a lot of data, so schools like Virginia Western can publish, as well as evaluate the success of the project and its impact on graduation rates.”

Otto Schwake, a postdoctoral research associate in civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, started the project while receiving his doctorate at Arizona State University.

“A former classmate reached out to me with concerns about Legionella on her campus,” said Schwake. “They had no budget to perform conventional testing, so we developed a plan for their students to conduct water quality monitoring. This way we would save money and provide research experience. Then, when I started my post-doc at Virginia Tech in 2015, I reached out to Virginia Western and they have been collaborating with us ever since.”

The local collaboration is part of a larger project that engages community college students around the country, where they take water samples from school fountains and bathrooms to investigate where Legionella might be found in the environment.

“I think projects like this one are a great example of how you can do a competent, good scientific study and incorporate that at the community college level,” Brown said. “The more you can incorporate research into undergraduate education, the more likely the person is to go to graduate school, to do research in the future, and be more enthusiastic to go into higher education.”

As a Fralin Fellow, Brown now works with Schwake in Blacksburg, collecting and analyzing samples of windshield washer fluid from vehicles around the country. Schwake’s past research has shown that bacteria, including Legionella, are present in washer fluid when levels of methanol, the primary chemical used for cleaning, are low. As a possible result, Legionella levels tend to be lower in states with colder climates such as North Dakota, Michigan, and Washington, where more of the agent is used to keep fluids from freezing. On the other hand, washer fluid from areas with warmer climates, such as Virginia, Arizona, and Arkansas, tends to have more of the bacteria.

Schwake and Brown have found that Legionella, including strains that can cause Legionnaire’s disease when inhaled, are commonly found in the environment, but the overall public health risk from most contaminated sources is low. Groups that tend to be most at risk include those with compromised immune systems and, potentially, people in transportation professions.

“I remember being impressed that a freshman in a first-year mixed-majors biology class was bringing in peer-reviewed journal articles to discuss with me,” said Jacqueline Biscardi, an assistant professor of biology at Virginia Western Community College. Biscardi initially recruited Brown into the project.

“Connor was a very enthusiastic and engaged student, and loved learning the various lab techniques in microbiology aimed at identifying unknown bacterial species. I enjoyed working with him very much due to his enthusiasm, willingness to work hard, and his creative and intelligent problem-solving ability.”

With possible future fellowships, Brown hopes to give other community college students the same chance he had. Currently he is developing a survey to investigate the perceptions of community college and transfer students on faculty who are recruiting undergraduate researchers at four-year institutions. As part of the project, he plans to use funds from additional fellowships to hire a few of these students so that they also gain experience.

Recently, Brown received an ACC Creativity and Innovation Grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research to begin developing this project over the summer.

“It’s hard to make time for research when you’re a student and working,” said Brown. “Offering these opportunities opens up the possibility more students who have to work can participate.”

Written by Cassandra Hockman.