Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Scientific research — not just for graduate students

By Rebecca Bell
Dean of Community Relations & Special Events

Scientific research is usually regarded as a function of graduate institutions of higher education. Occasionally major universities have research projects being performed by undergraduate students. One certainly does not associate research projects with community colleges; however, Twenty-eight-year-old Justin Hunt explained, “I was always interested in science. I grew up in Abilene and graduated from Abilene High School. When the opportunity presented itself to move to Midland and attend Midland College, I immediately took advantage of the excellent opportunities that MC’s science program offers.”

On Friday and Saturday, October 5 and 6, Hunt was joined by more than 140 fellow undergraduate science enthusiasts at the Midland College Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) Conference. Thirteen West Texas and New Mexico universities and community colleges were represented at the two-day conference. Hunt, who graduated from Midland College in May 2012, is continuing his studies at Texas Tech University and majoring in cell and molecular biology. His goal is to become a pediatrician. During the two years that Hunt attended MC, he worked with Biology Professor Dr. Paul Mangum in a DNA comparison project.

Like Hunt, 33-year-old Benjamyn Ortiz, is also performing genetics research under the tutelage of Dr. Mangum. During the STEM Conference, Ortiz presented the results of his project entitled “Analysis of the PMCT118 VNTR Allele Frequency.”

“My interests lie in population genetics and virology,” explained Ortiz. “My Midland College research involves DNA testing of various people to explore similar genetic traits among several ethnicities.”

Ortiz, who was working in the retail industry before moving to Midland about two years ago, said that he plans to remain in Midland and take classes through Sul Ross State University (SRSU) when he graduates with his associate degree from MC. The MC/SRSU Science Initiative allows for SRSU students to remain on the MC campus and take courses via computer and video conferencing. Hands-on SRSU science labs are taught by MC faculty.

Both Hunt and Ortiz are not traditional college students in that they are a few years older than the average community college attendee. However, the men said that they have found their niche in scientific research and are glad to have started their genetics analyses with Dr. Mangum. Both explained that Professor Mangum helped them to appreciate science and explore career opportunities in the field. Mangum is leading another genetics-based research project, which is being funded in part by the Midland-based Yarborough Foundation. The research focuses on modifying the procedure for PTC DNA fingerprinting from 24 hours to 2 hours. PTC is a substance that tastes bitter to some people, while others do not taste it at all. By using DNA fingerprinting to identify and evaluate the genetic information of a person’s cells, MC research students are able to predict whether the test subject can or cannot taste PTC. The efforts of the student research will hopefully reduce the procedure time so that a traveling demonstration kit can be developed for use in MC’s community outreach program.

In addition to Dr. Mangum’s genetics project, the Yarborough Foundation is also helping to fund MC research that will have a direct impact on the Permian Basin environment. Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Miranda Poage and her research students are attempting to identify microbes capable of degrading hydrocarbons in soil found in the Permian Basin. The genomes of these microbes will be analyzed in hopes that they can be used to remediate soil contaminated by petrochemical activity.

During a recent interview with the Midland Reporter-Telegram, MC Dean of Math and Natural Science Dr. Margaret Wade explained, “[Research] is a fairly new emphasis for us, and I owe so much credit to the faculty. They are solid in their teaching and then they research and serve as faculty mentors for the students. They truly are phenomenal, and Midland College is so fortunate to have such dedicated and caring professionals!”

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