Earlham College and IU East partner to receive National Science Foundation grant and conduct soil research

April 12th, 2012

Earlham College and Indiana University East have received a $168,739 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore the soil bacteria in soybean and corn fields. Beyond the research, the grant will foster partnerships within the Richmond community, specifically between Earlham College and IU East.

The grant will fund an interdisciplinary research project, “Using Metagenomics to Realize an Education Partnership and Stimulate Curriculum Development.” The project is under the direction of Earlham College faculty Christopher R. Smith, assistant professor of biology, Peter L. Blair, associate professor of biology; and Charles F. Peck, associate professor of computer science, and IU East faculty Hitesh Kathuria, assistant professor of chemistry, Neil Sabine, associate professor of biology, and Parul Khurana, visiting assistant professor of biology.

“The funding from NSF will allow us to find out what bacteria exist in these communities, what they do, and how they differ from field to field. We hope that our findings can improve agricultural practices and indicate the soil health,” Smith said.

The technology used to describe the soil bacteria communities generates a massive quantity of data in the form of DNA sequences.  The team from Earlham and IU East will integrate these data into courses so that students at both institutions will help to analyze and mine the data.

“We are harnessing the intellectual power of our students to investigate real issues.  While we have some hypotheses that we will explicitly test, the students will not only build the datasets, but query them to investigate hypotheses of their own,” Smith said.

Through the project, the faculty and students will conduct in-class research using data that have local and global relevance, use modern technologies and computational approaches, and integrate principles of molecular and organismal biology. In addition, the data and course materials developed will be made freely available for use by other researchers and educators.

“In this new collaborative opportunity, the students and faculty at both universities will work alongside each other to address the scientific queries via a problem-based learning approach,” Kathuria said.

In addition, most of the course materials are organized as modules that can easily be adopted without a major change in the structure of established courses. The modules will be easily insertable into many different courses without a disruption to the basic architecture of the course. With broad dissemination of the course materials and data, the researchers at Earlham and IU East hope to bring data and research into more classrooms.

“We are delighted to have Earlham working in partnership with IU East in this undertaking,” said Earlham’s Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs Gregory Mahler. “This is an important research project, with clear implications for American agricultural practices, and we think that this is going to offer a very exciting opportunity for our students to participate in hands-on research. Earlham is committed to providing our students with this type of experiential opportunity, and I think that this provides a clear illustration of why so many of our students go on to graduate programs: they are given the chance to engage in real research projects as undergraduates and to see how exciting this kind of activity is.”

The partnership between Earlham College and IU East not only grows the collaboration between the two major higher education centers in the eastern Indiana, it exposes a high diversity of students to research and technology. The project also increases the ways by which under-represented groups can participate in research. For example, 40 percent of students at IU East are first generation college students. Earlham College promotes involvement of under-represented groups in research through the Ronald E. McNair Post baccalaureate Achievement Program, designed to prepare students who have traditionally been under-represented in graduate studies for graduate work leading to a Ph.D.

IU East Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Larry Richards said, “Students at IU East have the opportunity to participate and conduct research early in their academic career. This research project is a great experience for students to work with their peers and faculty at Earlham College and IU East.”

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