Creating Solutions in Molecular Biology
Students Engage inCutting-Edge Research
Brian Jackson traveled to the Texas Rio
Grande Valley last spring, but not to join
other students at South Padre Island, a
popular spring break attraction, or take a
historical tour of the region, where the
first battle in the Mexican-American War
and the last in the American Civil War are
believed to have occurred.
Jackson visited potato growers in the
McAllen area as a participant in a 21st
century battle of sorts.
He was working as a graduate research
assistant to Dr. Blake Bextine, an entomologist
and assistant professor of biology at
The University of Texas at Tyler. The professor
and his team of student research
assistants are creating solutions to agricultural
problems involving interactions
between bacteria, plants and insects.
Among other projects, they have joined
scientists internationally in efforts to combat
zebra chip, a disease threatening the
production of potatoes in Texas, other
southwestern states, Mexico and
Guatemala. Jackson went to McAllen to
collect leaf samples from potato crops for
UT Tyler’s investigation of the disorder,
first reported in the United States in 2000.
Dr. Bextine’s molecular biology laboratory
is one of several UT Tyler biology department
programs providing students opportunities
to make important contributions
to research, said Dr. Don Killebrew,
department chair and professor.
“Dr. Bextine, since he has been here, has
established his research program and has
been very active in encouraging students to
participate. They’ve gone to professional
meetings and presented papers and posters
and done quite well. It helps fulfill one of the
goals of our department, which is to encourage
students to do research,’’ said Dr.
“All of our tenure and tenure-track faculty
have been very active in developing their
research programs and involving graduate
students as well as undergraduates in their
Jackson began employment with Dr.
Bextine five years ago as an undergraduate
with no experience in research. Even then,
the student was not limited to menial
“Dr. Bextine has always been good about
giving the undergraduates a chance to sort
themselves out by their interests and
abilities,’’ he said. “I benefited a lot from
the ability to come into the lab, do experiments
and write papers as opposed to just
washing dishes and cleaning floors.’’
Jackson completed his master’s degree in
biology in December 2007 and continued
working in the lab in the spring and
summer. This fall, he accepted a fellowship
to begin doctoral studies in toxicology at
the University of Colorado in Denver. He
wants to pursue a career in toxicology
“Through my own hard work and the
opportunities that I’ve been given through
this university and through Dr. Bextine,
I’ve been put in a very good place,’’ he said
of receiving the fellowship.
Working in research with the professor was
“a very strong developmental experience’’
“The things I’ve learned about doing
research, networking, grants, publishing,
putting together projects, almost all of that
came through working with him as my
mentor,’’ he said.
Awarded $200,000 to $300,000 a year
in state, federal and corporate grants, Dr.
Bextine’s lab focuses primarily on developing
tactics for managing and techniques
for diagnosing pathogens – disease-causing
agents such as bacteria – that are transmitted
to plants by insects.
The professor’s major research areas
include Pierce’s disease – his flagship
project and part of a highly integrated
effort with other investigators around the
state. The disease, caused by the bacterium
Xylella fastidiosa, has brought significant
losses to vineyards in Texas and other states.
Dr. Bextine and his team are involved in
detecting Xylella fastidiosa in its most
important vector, the glassy winged sharpshooter.
Their efforts have improved
molecular detection of the bacterium in
plants and insects and furthered scientists’
epidemiological understanding of the
Pierce’s disease system. Funding for their
work is provided by the U.S. Department
of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service and administered
through Texas A&M University.
The lab receives grants from Frito-Lay,
Texas potato growers and the Texas
Department of Agriculture to help determine
the cause of zebra chip, so-called for
the unsightly stripes appearing in the
afflicted potato when sliced and fried to
“I became involved because we were
expecting it to be a vector situation in
which an insect transmits a pathogen,’’ Dr.
Bextine said of the disorder, also called
zebra complex. “We now believe that a little
insect called a potato psyllid is involved and
it’s actually a complex situation involving
multiple factors and not just a single
The lab’s involvement includes studying
the genetics of psyllids.
Dr. Bextine also is working to develop biological
strategies for controlling the red
imported fire ant, known to scientists as
Solenopsis invicta. The pest’s massive
colonies destroy crops, damage farm and
electrical equipment, accelerate soil erosion
and pose a threat to plants and animals.
Projects include the study of an antinfecting
virus as a potential control
agent. U.S. Department of Agriculture
researchers in Florida have identified a
naturally occurring virus among fire ants
that can eliminate colonies. “We’ve been
looking at a Texas strain of the virus,’’ Dr.
Bextine said. “If we can seed a virus and
begin limiting colonies, that’s the goal.’’
Grants have enabled the professor to
employ more than 25 students since starting
the lab three years ago. Funding also
allows him to take students to annual
scientific meetings to report on their work
to other scientists across the nation. UT
Tyler students have won awards for their
presentations, including Danielle Tufts’
first-place win at the 2007 Southwestern
Branch Meeting of the Entomological
Society of America.
“It is a win-win situation,’’ Dr. Bextine said
of involving students in research. “They
gain valuable experience and I get hard
working, highly motivated labor that helps
to move the research laboratory forward.’’
A Dallas-area native, Dr. Bextine earned a
bachelor’s degree in biology at the
University of Northern Iowa and a master’s
in entomology at Texas Tech
University. He went on to Oklahoma State
University and worked in research with a
plant pathologist while earning his doctorate
His understanding of both entomology
and plant pathology led to his work as a
post-doctorate researcher in Pierce’s disease
at the University of California,
Riverside. He oversaw a portion of the lab
of principle investigator Dr. Thomas Miller,
professor of entomology. That’s where Dr.
Bextine first employed students as research
|Dr. Bextine with Danielle Tufts, graduate assistant in fire ant research
The professor, who teaches cell and molecular
biology, joined the UT Tyler faculty
in 2005. He recruited Jackson, who had
worked with him as a research assistant at
UC Riverside, to become his first graduate
student and research assistant at UT Tyler.
Jackson began working in the UC
Riverside lab as an environmental science
major in 2003. He completed his bachelor’s
degree in 2004, began graduate studies
and continued working in the lab on
Pierce’s disease projects.
The student welcomed the opportunity to
transfer to UT Tyler and take on new
responsibilities. Along with helping to set
up and supervise the new lab, he would
serve as the main assistant in Pierce’s disease
research and a graduate teaching assistant.
Dr. Bextine and Jackson arrived in Tyler in
July and had the molecular biology lab up
and running by the start of the fall semester
To help with start-up costs, Dr. Bextine
received funding from The University of
Texas System’s Science and Technology
Acquisition and Retention program,
which supports development of extramurally
funded research. He also brought
funding from the California Department
of Food and Agriculture, carried over from
his post-doctorate research.
The UT Tyler biology department has
more undergraduate than graduate
students, so Dr. Bextine heavily recruited
undergrads to work in his lab. “The great
thing was, there were a lot of undergraduates
at UT Tyler who wanted to be involved
and who were bright and brought great
ideas,’’ the professor said.
Two other graduate students from
California joined his research team. Tufts
and Y. Denice Lin came to UT Tyler in
2006 after completing their undergraduate
degrees at the University of California,
Their coming to UT Tyler from the same
school and at the same time was coincidental.
They were undergraduates in
different departments at UC Davis and
never met before entering UT Tyler.
Both were impressed by information
they found online about the university’s
graduate biology program and research
Lin, who earned her bachelor’s in biological
sciences, said she chose UT Tyler because
“I liked the fact that this was a growing
university and saw there were a lot of
opportunities in Dr. Bextine’s new lab.’’
The lab’s three research areas offer students
a variety of projects in which to participate.
New workers are given time to migrate
toward a project they find most interesting,
said Dr. Bextine, who serves as the lab’s
principle investigator with his graduate
students and longest tenured undergraduates
serving as middle managers.
New employees “spend about two weeks
shadowing others in the lab and learning
about our work. What happens is they will
migrate towards something. And when
they do, I encourage them in that direction,’’
the professor said.
“Once they’re engaged and excited about
their work … I give them projects, they
check in with me and we just get things
done – magically. They’ll tell you it’s not
magic but, from the boss’s point of view,
it’s sort of magical,’’ he said, adding he can
only pay students to work 19 ˝ hours a
week but some voluntarily work additional
hours. “Sometimes it’s hard to convince
them to leave,’’ he added with a laugh.
The lab is a fully functional research facility
with “the molecular capabilities at the
DNA and RNA level that a lot of places
do not have,’’ said Dr. Bextine.
“One of the things we do is detect bacterium
in the insect pest we’re studying. Basically
that requires DNA extraction and then,
the next step is called polymerase chain
reaction or PCR, a molecular technique to
detect bacteria. So the first step is just getting
students to learn to extract DNA.
Once they’re good at that, they can move
on to PCR and then to molecular assays,
DNA sequencing, just all kinds of things.’’
His student assistants improve not only in
scientific research, but also in academics.
As part of a faculty review, the professor
checked the workers’ grade point averages,
comparing GPAs for the two semesters
prior to and following their employment
start date. Grades had improved “dramatically
by an average of about five points –
from 2.7 to 3.2,’’ said Dr. Bextine.
“What I think happens, many students
have to work to help pay for their education.
They’re doing their studies while also
working 30 or 40 hours a week off campus
on jobs that pay minimum wages,’’ the
professor said, adding that he pays well so
students will be committed to the research.
“When they come to work for me, they no
longer have to leave campus to work. Their
work in scientific research helps them to
better understand their academic coursework.
In the lab, they also connect with
other biology majors, chemistry majors,
math majors and a lot of them take the
same classes. All of a sudden, you have this
group of students of various majors who
are connected. When we talk about getting
students involved on campus to help with
retention, this is an example of that.’’
Natalie Vitovsky Jackson said working in
the lab definitely made her life easier. Prior
to being hired there, the undergraduate
worked at a hospital in Athens, more than
35 miles away from campus, while taking
15 credit hours each semester.
“Since the laboratory is on campus it is
convenient to set up a reaction and then
go to class and come back to check on it,
and the hours are flexible,’’ said Jackson.
She was able to improve her grades and
increase her course load to 18 credit hours
per semester. “The work performed in Dr.
Bextine's laboratory was usually on par
with what I learned in my coursework, and
often more advanced,’’ said the student, who
majored in English with a double minor in
biology and classical studies.
Jackson also thrived on the job. She won
awards for Pierce’s disease research presentations
at 2007 and 2008 Entomological
Society of America regional meetings,
where she competed with both undergraduate
and graduate students.
The student from Mabank completed her
bachelor of arts degree in the spring and
moved to Colorado with Brian, whom she
met at UT Tyler and married. She plans to
pursue graduate studies to prepare for a
career in classical archaeology research.
Graduation is about two years away for
Patrick Marshall of Tyler, an undergraduate
majoring in music with a minor in biology.
He hopes to continue working in the
molecular biology lab until then.
Marshall worked at a fast food restaurant
and then a retail store before Dr. Bextine
hired him in spring 2007. Working in the
lab “has made my time here on campus
more efficient, and there are things I’ve
learned in the lab that have helped me
immensely in my biology classes,’’ said the
assistant in Pierce’s disease research.
“It’s a great work environment, the best
job I’ve ever had,’’ he added. “It’s not highstress
like the jobs I had before, where the
bosses were always right there in everything
that you were doing. Dr. Bextine
develops individual projects for each person.
You’re working on your own project
and you’re also part of a team. Each project
fits into a bigger project, which fits into
a bigger project. It’s really cool how he
splits it up and allows everyone to take
responsibility for their part. And we have
weekly meetings so he can keep up with
Daymon Hail of Jacksonville and
Alexandra Gunawan of Austin have chosen
careers in biology-related research as a
result of working in the lab.
“I always knew I wanted some type of
career in the medical field but I wasn’t sure
exactly what,’’ said Hail, hired in 2006 as
an undergraduate biology major. “As soon
as I began working here, I realized this was
what I’d been waiting for. This job put me
in the direction of wanting to become a
Undergraduate research assistants Daymon Hail and Alana Gray
His projects included detection and analysis
of Xylella fastidiosa in glassywinged sharpshooter
populations in Texas vineyards.
Immediately after graduating in May, Hail
was hired to work in blood coagulation
research at The University of Texas Health
Science Center at Tyler. He said his experience
in research helped qualify him for the job.
Gunawan was a psychology major when
she began working in the lab in 2007.
Before long, she changed to a psychology/
biology double major. She hopes to do
research in a field encompassing psychology
and biology, such as neuroscience.
“Working in the lab has changed my
whole set of priorities. “Now I’m sure, it’s
research for me. It’s what I enjoy,’’ said the
student, whose projects include analyzing
genetic relationships between potato
Gunawan plans to graduate in December
and begin graduate studies.
Tufts and Lin spent two years as co-workers
in the Bextine lab, but their interests
took them in different directions.
Wildlife conservation and genetics are primary
interests for Tufts, who holds a bachelor
of science in wildlife, fish and conservation
biology and animal genetics. The student
from Sacramento, Calif., completed
her master’s thesis this summer and plans to
begin doctorate studies. She aspires to work
in genetics research to solve problems in
endangered species conservation.
In the lab, she studied genetics using the
red imported fire ant as a model and was
the main assistant in developing strategies
for controlling the pest.
“I am very interested in conservation issues
and that’s why I like the fire ant project.
The red imported fire ant is an invasive
species and in Texas it is causing a lot of
harm for nesting birds and other native
species and for agriculture in general,’’
In addition to placing first in 2007 for a
poster presentation, she placed second at
the entomological society’s 2008 meeting
for an oral presentation.
The 2007 award “was really exciting for
me because it was the very first meeting I’d
been to and the very first poster I’d ever
done,’’ she said. “This year was actually the
first time I had ever given an oral presentation
in front of big groups of scientists,
and I placed second. (Winning an award)
is really good for your resume and serves as
a validation that, yes, your work is important
and you did do a good job.’’
With interests in immunology and
medical technology, Lin was Dr. Bextine’s
main assistant in zebra chip research.
“I’m basically dealing with the potato
psyllid, the insect we believe is causing
problems in potato plants,’’ she said before
completing her master’s degree in the
summer. “I’m working to distinguish
populations of the insect using DNA
sequencing technology. And I’m trying to
determine if there are pathogens the insect
is carrying or if its saliva is causing the
disease. … We’re working to solve the
She plans to earn a doctorate and become
a molecular biologist and teacher with a
specialization in immunology research.
“Through research and advanced technology,
I want to help solve problems related to
human diseases,’’ she said.
Lin also wants to encourage other females
to become scientists.
The student decided early in life to pursue
a career in science, despite being advised
otherwise. She grew up in Taiwan, where
boys were considered better than girls in
“In elementary school I had a teacher tell
me, ‘You’re a good student but if you go
into science you’ll have to compete with
boys and that’s not something you’ll want
to do,’ ’’ Lin recalled with a laugh.
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