By Madison Boboltz, Staff Writer
On Oct. 11, Dr. Jennifer Hennigan, associate professor of biology and chemistry, presented undergraduate research at the Abilene Interdisciplinary Symposium on cancer and biomedical research at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
Each year in the fall, representatives from schools in the area, including Abilene Christian University, McMurry University, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Cisco College and Hardin-Simmons University, gather to meet, share their work and hear from a keynote speaker.
This year’s keynote speaker was Dr. Yvonne J. Paterson, a professor and associate dean for research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. She discussed how the immune system is used to fight cancer.
Although the symposium overall focused on cancer and biomedical research, Dr. Hennigan gave a presentation over bioremediation research done by undergraduate students, which examines how bacteria is used to clean up and break down crude oil. She herself shared the research, though some HSU students in the Physician’s Assistant program, as well as a few biology majors, attended the symposium.
“I’ve had students working on this research for the past several years. They are looking for bacteria that can work in high salt environments, similar to the high saltwater waste that you would see coming from fracking operations, like hydraulic fracturing that you hear about in oil drilling,” Dr. Hennigan said.
Students have isolated three types of bacteria from Truscott Brine Lake in Knox County, one of which has shown more positive degradation, or the ability to degrade crude oil, than the positive control, pseudomonas aeruginosa.
“We have been looking at how well it does that, so we use a gas chromatograph to see how the amount of crude oil changes before and after exposure to our bacteria. We also look at what kinds of hydrocarbons are leftover. We have been doing that by infrared spectroscopy,” Dr. Hennigan explained.
As the years have gone by, some students who have worked on this research have graduated and gone on to do other types of research in various settings. “It is an undergraduate driven project. Several undergrad students have been working on it, many of them have graduated. Those who have graduated have gone on to graduate school in different areas. I have one student who is finishing his Ph.D. soon at Texas Tech University in chemistry. Others have gone to MD Anderson Cancer Center and are doing biological research in Houston. Currently, Kamron Gopffarth is my student working on this project,” Dr. Hennigan said.
When asked why there is value in acquiring research experience as an undergraduate student, Dr. Hennigan emphasized the importance of developing critical thinking skills. “We sometimes think about science as being very ‘textbook.’ You read about it in a textbook, and whatever is there is what is known. But science is not about things that are in a textbook. It is about all of this unknown material that is out there, and it is about the scientific process. Really, the students getting a chance to use the scientific process and to see how new information is discovered is pretty important, I think,” Dr. Hennigan said.
She elaborated by giving an example on how students can apply those critical thinking skills in their chosen vocations. “We have a lot of students who are interested in doing pre-professional health. I always tell them that they need to go do research because when patients come in, they are like mini research projects. You make observations about their symptoms, but then you have to take that and create a hypothesis about what is wrong, and then test your hypothesis by coming up with a treatment. Going through that critical thinking process is important for students,” Dr. Hennigan said.
With this beneficial experience also comes certain challenges. “The greatest challenge for undergraduates in research is that science doesn’t always do what you expect it to do. Your project may not turn out the way you expect it to turn out. It can take determination and perseverance to continue on a project when things may not be looking the way you want them to look,” Dr. Hennigan said.
Dr. Hennigan said that she believes the presentation went well. She also enjoys getting to see what colleagues in the area are doing and recognizing that Hardin-Simmons University can also be a place that offers competitive research opportunities.
Dr. Hennigan suggests that students in the Holland School of Science and Mathematics who are interested in getting involved in research attend research meetings, which are held on one Thursday a month during the long semesters. Dates for the meetings are posted throughout Sid-Richardson Science Center.