Dedication for discovery: Students embrace research opportunities through College of Science and Engineering

Originally known as a predominantly teachers college, Central Michigan University has been making strides to establish itself as a college ahead of the game in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

With the unveiling of new projects such as the Biosciences Building in September and plans to open more science labs in coming years, CMU’s College of Science and Engineering is making this possible with its myriad programs and opportunities for students at the university. This includes expanding the fermentation science program and adding biosafety labs and a multitude of research projects.

More than 180 undergraduate students in the College of Science and Engineering participated in capstone projects involving research, design projects or internships in the past year, with another 153 students working with faculty on research projects in their respective labs.

The university has made an investment in more than just a building, said Ian Davison, dean of the College of Science and Engineering. They’ve made an investment in the future of students. It is crucial students are trained in up-to-date software and technologies being used in the field they are entering, he said.

“The STEM fields by nature are highly technological, and these disciplines need access to the latest software and modern equipment so they can do work that is cutting edge,” Davison said. “That’s not just important for the faculty and their research, but for the students.”

He said he thinks faculty at major research universities, such as University of Michigan and Michigan State University, have a lot of pressure to get external grants to support their research. This makes it harder for them to embrace undergraduates in their work like CMU does, Davidson said.

“As we strengthen our research programs, we want to make sure that (we) strengthen the undergraduate programs as well, by giving undergraduate students an opportunity to work in cutting-edge research,” he said.

Fermentation Science Program Successes

Now that the first 2015 student cohort to complete the Fermentation Science certificate program is out in the job market, Program Director Cordell DeMattei said most graduates are experiencing impressive job success.

Students have been accepting job offers at breweries all over Michigan, DeMattei said, including Ann Arbor Brewing Company, Four Leaf Brewing, Frankenmuth Brewing and Hunter’s Ale House in Mount Pleasant.

Steve Swaney, a brewer at Hunter’s Ale House who received the Fermentation Science certificate, said he thinks students who attain the certificate are more competitive in the job market. He said a strong reputation has been built between CMU’s fermentation science program and nearby breweries.

Swaney used to work in a pharmaceutical biochemistry lab at the University of Michigan. He moved to Mount Pleasant when his wife accepted a faculty position at CMU. He had been brewing beer as a hobby for more than 10 years and enrolled in the program when his wife suggested turning his hobby into a profession.

The program taught him how to go from a home brewing scale operation to professional brewery, Swaney said. Making the transition to a larger scale operation was made possible with skills he learned in the program, from mechanical equipment to cleaning processes to quality control, Swaney said.

He now has a more in-depth knowledge of the science behind brewing, Swaney said, such as the bittering of the hops and malting reactions.

Paige Windish from Mancelona also works at Hunter’s Ale House. She graduated from CMU with a degree in biomedical sciences and the fermentation science certificate. Windish typically uses a three-barrel system, which allows her to create experimental batches.

She said DeMattei’s program taught her about different yeast reactions, hops aromas and how the flavors combine in a brew — important elements when making experimental batches.

Both Swaney and Windish said the 200-hour internship required for the certificate played a key role in preparing them for the job market.

DeMattei said he hopes the Fermentation Science Program will keep growing in size and number of internships for experience. He plans to add an analytics lab to the program in future years, where students will be able to test the various beers they brew.

Studying Infectious Diseases

In addition to expanding its brewing program, CMU is expanding its ability to partake in critical research on infectious diseases that inflict millions of people around the world.

When student and faculty researchers work with dangerous diseases, specialized facilities and safety protocol are necessary to prevent outbreak.

Chemistry professor Benjamin Swarts said new biosafety facilities in the Biosciences Building are designed in four levels.

These facilities will be open for student and faculty research use once the labs are approved by CMU’s Institutional Biosafety Committee. For now, researchers use the older biosafety labs.

Each level is designated to work with increasingly dangerous biological elements, with additional special features and practices building upon the previous level.

Swarts said CMU has Biosafety Level 1 and Level 2 facilities that faculty use for research. Researchers at CMU have already been using Level 2 facilities to study the Zika Virus, which is spread by mosquitoes.

As one of the features on the fourth floor of the new Biosciences Building, researchers at the university will have access to a Biosafety Level 3 facility for the first time. It will be used to allow “safe handling and manipulation of pathogens” which could “cause serious or potentially lethal disease through the inhalation route of exposure,” Swarts said.

Swarts will be the first researcher to use the facilities for tuberculous research. He was also one of the key players involved with creating the facility.

“It’s estimated more than 2 billion people, or a third of the world’s population, are infected with this bacterium,” he said. “These are primarily latent infections where the bacterium is dormant and does not cause disease. There are approximately 10 million cases of active tuberculous disease per year, leading to about 1.5 million fatalities.”

His research involves developing methods to study the outer layer of Mycobacterium tuberculosis cells, the bacterium responsible for causing tuberculosis. Swarts said the outer layer is important to bacterial defense, communication and drug tolerance, but there are still aspects of the layer’s structure and function that scientists do not understand.

A greater understanding on how the outer layer works can provide insight critical for developing new anti-tubercular drugs.

While treatment for tuberculosis exists, Swarts said the rigorous and extended nature of treatment makes it difficult for people to medicate properly, allowing the disease to build immunity to medicine.

“Given the massive impact diseases like tuberculosis have on global health, it is important that facilities are available to allow research that aims to better understand and combat these devastating human diseases,” he said. “Although rare, bacteria similar to those causing human tuberculosis have also caused disease in Michigan’s cattle and wildlife. Research on these pathogens could have an impact on the regional level as well.”

Access to the Biosafety Level 3 facility will be strict. He said only faculty and graduate students who have completed a difficult training process and have been approved by CMU’s institutional biosafety committee will be permitted.

The entrance to the facility features double-door access, meaning researchers must enter a room to prepare themselves with proper attire and equipment before entering the facility. Doors to the two rooms will never be opened at the same time.

Inside the biosafety facility, scientists are protected during all manipulation of biological agents because the work will be done in special safety cabinets with high-efficiency particulate air filters, Swarts said.

In addition, biohazardous waste will be sterilized using a “pass-through” autoclave for decontamination.

The Biosafety Level 3 facility will expand research opportunities at CMU. Swarts said it will allow current faculty to extend their research interests into the realm of infectious diseases, and the university will be able to recruit future faculty with expertise in these areas.

“From an educational standpoint, CMU graduate students and postdoctoral fellows trained to work in the laboratory will have an extremely valuable skill set when they enter the job market,” he said.

Undergraduate research experiences

For students who haven’t found internships or are involved in doctoral or post-undergraduate research, opportunities are still abound in the College of Science and Engineering.

“We’re an institution at a level of doing high quality research, but haven’t disconnected it from the undergraduate enterprise,” Davison said.

Davison said during the past three years, an average of 40 academic papers published by the college have at least one undergraduate author. He said for a student to be included as an author, their contribution must be tangible.

“Our engineering programs, for example, have grown rapidly. As those have grown it’s been supported by the central administration, giving us additional faculty members,” he said. “They’ve also given us new faculty to strengthen the Institute of Great Lakes Research and research in nuclear physics, a program we do in collaboration with MSU and their facility for rare isotope beams.”

Michael Anger came to CMU with an associate’s degree from Mid-Michigan Community College knowing he wanted to do research. He said he knew there were always going to be jobs in a science field but wanted to find an area that intrigued him.

“If you get into the labs early, as an undergraduate, it allows you to test the waters without risk, and you can spend different semesters in different fields of research,” Anger said. “You might think you want to be a scientist, but (you) wouldn’t know until you learn what those people really do.”

Anger spends about 20 hours a week in Dr. Bradley Fahlman’s chemistry research lab, conducting experiments while working under doctoral student Phillip Medina. Originally, he came to CMU to study physics, but since he knew Fahlman from his church community, Anger asked him for advice in getting involved.

Fahlman’s research group focuses on studying green technology. By using nanomaterials to insert into batteries, they aim to find different capabilities to store energy more efficiently.

“It’s an exciting field to be in,” Anger said. “We (as a species) have to go green eventually. Resources are going to run out sometime.”

Anger said research like this holds the ultimate goal of getting corporations and society to switch to green energy by scientifically proving its capabilities and efficiency.

Currently, Anger is working on a way to easily reproduce synthesized porous silicon thin films, which have the capability of being 11 times more conductive than the current material being used in batteries. Scientists have been able to do this since the 1990’s, but there has been difficulty in easily reproducing the process.

Fahlman’s research group is trying to prove using the silicon-based substance is a viable option for batteries, Anger said. Companies can take the scientific evidence to investors, who can invest capital into greener energy manufacturing.

Anger has successfully been able to reproduce the synthesized porous silicon several times. He said he has been able to do this because of advanced technology the university has invested in.

Once concluded, Fahlman will send samples of their results to colleagues all over the world.

Silicon is incredibly versatile, Anger said, so the material can be used for various applications in the medical and energy industries.

Anger has plans present his work in his first academic publication next semester. He said student initiative is a key role in getting involved with research at CMU.

Anger said if students think they are interested in an area, they should do research on what CMU faculty are doing, and talk to them.

“You don’t need a lot of background,” he said. “You just need the initiative.”