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May 3, 2015

Avila students win awards for excellence in student research

austin armstrong

On April 11, Avila University students Austin Armstrong and Jordan Burns participated in the Beta Beta Beta District II Convention hosted by Southwestern College in Kan. where the two seniors presented separate research projects. Armstrong and Burns swept the competition taking first and second place in the John C. Johnson Award For Excellence in Student Research. The awards come as a huge success for the students, their mentors, the Department of Biology, and Avila University; but the awards did not come without hard work and dedication.

Armstrong, a pre-health and biology double major with a minor in chemistry, took the first place award for his research. “My research is a biochemical project that focuses on the extraction and purification of fungal enzymes in the lab of Dr. Linda Cleveland. The fungus Bipolaris orzyae secretes an extracellular enzyme that is suspected to be laccase. This extracellular enzyme is believed to be involved in the pathogenicity of the fungus on rice and other cereal grains. My project is specifically focused on separating and concentrating the enzyme in order to run characterization tests that will allow us to identify the enzyme as laccase,” said Armstrong.

The research of fungal enzymes, which Armstrong has dedicated much of his undergraduate career to researching, started long before Armstrong became involved. Armstrong stated, “Dr. Cleveland has been involved with the research of fungal enzymes her entire career. She stumbled upon the enzyme, laccase, during graduate school and noticed that the extracellular enzyme of B. oryzae was consistent with known laccases, but had not been identified in B. oryzae. I have been involved in research with Dr. Cleveland for the past three years. In this time, we have made remarkable progress. I believe that we are on the cusp of being able to identify the presence of laccase in B. oryzae.”

Upon reflection of his undergraduate research and career, Armstrong is highly appreciative to have Dr. Cleveland as his faculty advisor. Beyond the project, Dr. Cleveland allowed Armstrong to witness the scientific method in progress, pushed him to expand his research presentation skills, and taught him how to ask the right questions. “I will never forget one of the discussions I was having with Dr. Cleveland where she told me, ‘Now you sound like a scientist.’ That was a significant moment for me, as it was the first time I had been able to ask a question that she hadn't thought of or addressed yet,” Armstrong reflected.

Burns, a pre-vet and biology double major, received second place in the John C. Johnson Award For Excellence in Student Research. “The purpose of my research project was to examine the effects of humidity and bean type on the lifespan and egg production of the seed beetle, Callosobruchus maculatus. This beetle is an agricultural pest of the Middle East and Asia that targets legumes. High and low humidities, as well as two different bean types, were used in my research in order to observe if environmental conditions influenced the egg laying behavior and ability of the C. maculatus females. In regions where the seed beetle is an agricultural pest, an alternative to the use of insecticides might be programs that incorporate biological control. The results from my research suggests that some aspects of seed beetle reproduction are influenced by humidity and seed type, which might be useful in the design of biological control programs,” said Burns.

Burns worked in the lab of Dr. Gregory Fitch, who has been working with seed beetles for many years at Avila. Burns asked Dr. Fitch to become her faculty mentor because of his work with live specimen, something she had great interest in being a pre-vet major. After their first experimental idea was unsuccessful, Dr. Fitch and Burns decided to focus on humidity and bean type because of the lack of published literature on its effect on the bean beetle. “Dr. Fitch believed that I would be able to handle the massive amount of work this experiment turned out be, and I will forever treasure the time we spent together on this project,” Burns reflected. Burns and Dr. Fitch are looking to publish their findings from this research project.

When asked to reflect on her collegiate experience, Burns said, “I have spent a year and a half, or three semesters, working on this experiment. I gained so much from this research project. I learned how to work around mistakes that I made and how to adapt my experiment to unforeseen complications. Dr. Fitch forced me into thinking and reasoning scientifically, which is one of the best skills he taught me. I can only hope that when I become a doctor, I will be half the scientist that Dr. Fitch is. From my dedication to this experiment, I also learned that the only thing that can hold me back from accomplishing a goal is myself.”

Armstrong and Burns, who are beyond grateful for their undergraduate experiences at Avila, have many great plans for the future. Armstrong, who is the 2015 recipient of the Ariston Award for the top senior undergraduate at Avila, will be attending medical school in the fall at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Bioscience. Burns will attend the Veterinary School at the University of Missouri – Columbia in the fall. The two science majors credit their faculty advisors, the projects, and their education at Avila University for the extraordinary experience that will help them succeed in their future careers.

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