Four undergraduates from Johnson State College traveled to Washington, D.C. last April to present their research before members of Congress, Congressional staff, representatives from federal grant agencies, and other researchers at the prestigious annual “Posters on the Hill” sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research. The project of Shayna Bennett, Heather Murphy, Shavonna Bent, and Katie Bora was one of only 60 selected from over 350 applications submitted by undergraduates across the U.S.
The students, under the mentorship of Dr. Elizabeth Dolci, investigated bacterial response to human-induced stress at the Vermont Asbestos Group mine. The mine, no longer in operation was the second largest asbestos mine in the United States, operating from the early 1900s to 1993. Today the site is characterized by 28 million tons of mine tailings, elevated concentrations of heavy metals, water reaching a pH of 9, and biological disturbances including physical deformities in fish. The students screened 23 bacterial mine isolates for heavy metal resistance, antibiotic resistance, and antibiotic production. They found that 26% of the bacteria exhibited resistance to two or more antibiotics, produced one or more antibiotics, and tolerated elevated levels of the heavy metal, cadmium. Resistance to six or more antibiotics was expressed in 13% of the bacteria and 78% produced at least one antibiotic. This scope of resistance and antibiotic production may provide insight into bacterial response to human degraded environments. The research has been funded by VGN pilot and project awards to Liz Dolci; Shayna, Heather, and Shavonna received VGN student summer support.
The two-day “Posters on the Hill” meeting featured participation in a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Young Professional Panel where students were introduced to young scientists who were serving as advisors on federal science policy. Meetings with Senator Patrick Leahy and staff members of Senator Sanders and Representative Peter Welch were highlights of the event. Vermont’s lawmakers had the opportunity to learn from four, first generation college students, the value of research experiences in undergraduate education. The event culminated with an evening poster session at the U.S. Capitol where the students presented their research findings to an audience of congressional staff, government officials, and other academics. They had an opportunity to meet and discuss their research experiences with Dr. Krishan Arora, the INBRE program director. Ms. Bennett described the significance of the event - “Going to Posters on the Hill made me realize that important people making decisions in Washington care and want to listen to our voice and what we are finding.”
Travel to Washington was supported by a National Science Foundation’s Scholarship in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) grant to Johnson State College, the College’s student government, and the President’s Fund for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
The experience was valued by all four students. To quote Ms. Bent, “My experience with Posters on the Hill was a formative part of my education at Johnson State College. Interacting with other undergraduate researchers expanded my view of the depth and breadth of research that is performed across many disciplines.”