Summer Research Program takes TNCC Professor and Students to William and Mary

Published: May 28, 2013

Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) Associate Professor of Biology Martin Zahn along with students, Olivia Awate and David Dittrich, are spending this summer conducting research at the College of William and Mary (W&M) as part of a faculty-student exchange program.

The research team started the 10-week program on May 28 and will examine viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophages) and their host bacteria to learn various things about DNA. “The students are an integral part of the program. They will work in the lab with me and will learn the techniques to isolate DNA, sequence DNA, determine where the virus in question should be classified, and investigate host range. Essentially, we will work as a team in coordination with faculty from W&M,” said Zahn.

“Beyond the refreshing experience in my craft, I have the opportunity to work daily with supportive research faculty and learn how to use advanced equipment that I might never be able to use otherwise,” he added.

The students are equally excited about participating. They will receive $4,000 through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program as administered by W&M and have an option to live on campus the entire 10 weeks. “For me it is a big opportunity for learning beyond what we do at [Thomas Nelson], and I am also excited about living in dorms because I never experienced that before. The studies will help me understand my Biology 102 class and can also be helpful because I’m planning to take chemistry,” said Awate, a General Science major and aspiring pediatrician.

Dittrich, who is opting to live off campus during the summer exchange, previously attended W&M and plans to enroll there in the fall. “I have some research experience under my belt. I used to work in W&M’s psychology vivarium, but I am still tremendously excited to be a part of this research. Beyond the implicit value of contributing to proper scientific research, I am looking forward to meeting the faculty and familiarizing myself with the biology department. I have no doubt that the knowledge gained will be useful for a biology degree,” he said.

This is Zahn’s third year participating in this summer exchange at W&M. During the first experience in 2011, he received training necessary to teach the Phage Hunters Lab, a special BIO 101 and 102 lab originated by HHMI. “We have successfully run the Phage Lab for a second year at the [Historic Triangle] campus of TNCC with support from W&M,” he said.

“This experience is directly translatable to the classroom. It is one thing to describe what other people have done. It is quite another thing to use your own experience to help students understand both the content and process of science. It will also improve my proficiency in the Phage Lab as we enter our third year,” Zahn added.

Zahn joined Thomas Nelson’s faculty in 1993 and has been head of the Biology Department, served as an assistant dean and is now the department’s co-chairman. He is chair of the Articulate Learning Outcomes (ALO) Committee and the ALO Biology Curriculum Committee for Virginia’s Community Colleges. He has a Bachelor’s degree from Cornell College and master’s degrees from Yale University and the University of Colorado.

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