It’s both the challenges and rewards that go along with conducting research that fuel Southern Illinois University Edwardsville senior biological sciences major Colleen Wagner’s drive and passion for biology and the medical sciences.
Wagner has proven her technical abilities and shown incredible potential as an undergraduate researcher in Susanne DiSalvo’s research lab. Now, she’s earned a highly competitive American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Undergraduate Research Fellowship which provides funding to conduct 10-weeks of summer research.
“The outstanding financial support provided by the ASM Fellowship goes entirely to the student, so they can devote their time to working in the lab on their independent project without having to seek employment elsewhere,” said DiSalvo, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biological Sciences. “This funding will enable Colleen to make substantial progress in her research over the summer and continue to develop her strong scientific skills.”
DiSalvo has mentored Wagner through SIUE’s unique Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) program. She has assisted on an extensive project which explores the infection characteristics of multiple bacterial symbiont strains in their amoebae hosts, and aims to link the characteristics with host fitness outcomes.
“I’m studying the relationship between the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum and Burkholderia bacteria,” Wagner explained. “Going forward, I’ll be looking to expand our knowledge by investigating whether or not Burkholderia might be producing products that are toxic to host amoeba. Basically, we are seeing if the bacteria have to actively infect the amoeba to negatively impact fitness or if it’s also producing something that could be harming the amoeba.”
While quite beyond the expertise of some, Wagner’s opportunity to dive into this important research and make significant contributions to its development have been a perfect fit for her scholarly interests, amplifying her academic experience and preparation for graduate school.
“I’ve found that participating in research has not only allowed me to hone in on what I’d like to do in the future, but also has offered a different perspective on some topics I’m learning in the classroom,” Wagner said. “Being able to make a connection between class material and real-life applications has been a great tool for me in becoming a better student.”
“The reality of lab work and scientific progress is difficult to envision without experiencing it first hand,” DiSalvo emphasized. “It is critical to provide as many students in the field with as much of a genuine experience in scientific research as possible. At SIUE, we endeavor to provide this to all of our majors through inquiry-based projects within core laboratory courses.”
DiSalvo notes that independent research opportunities, especially for undergraduates, give students autonomy over their learning process and advances their natural curiosity.
“Mentoring students in our independent research labs allows us to further support the development of knowledge, confidence and skills in our students in ways that promote and enrich their academic lives, and reach far beyond the realm of academia,” DiSalvo said. “These experiences can provide a huge sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when the students’ hard work and perseverance produces solid data that advances our understanding of a biological process.”
Wagner’s research contributions and the receipt of the ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship certainly demonstrate her hard work in the lab is paying off by way of recognition received and confidence placed in her summer research advancements.
“Colleen is a wonderfully bright, hard-working and easy-going student in the lab,” DiSalvo said. “I envision that her research contributions will enable us to complete this project and prepare it for publication.”
DiSalvo applauds two other outstanding students for applying for this competitive fellowship, including Andrew Tresslar and Andrew Hofferkamp. She praises the three students for supporting each other in the application process.
The Fellowship will allow Wagner to attend both the ASM Microbe Academy for Professional Development and the ASM Microbe Meeting in summer 2020, which she expects will provide ample learning and networking opportunities.
Photo: SIUE senior biology/medical sciences major Colleen Wagner conducts research in Dr. Susanne DiSalvo’s laboratory.