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Creating Solutions in Molecular Biology
Students Engage inCutting-Edge Research

Lab Student

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. Killebrew.

“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 research.’’

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 tasks.

“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 Dr. Bextinelab 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 research.

“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’’ for Jackson.

“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.

Major Projects
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 make chips.

“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 pathogen.’’

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.’’

Getting Started
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 in entomology.

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 assistants.

Bextine with student
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 in August.

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, Davis.

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 opportunities.

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.’’

Student Opportunities
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.’’

Academic Improvement
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 our progress.’’

Career Guidance
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 researcher.’’

Daymon Hail and Alana Gray
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 psyllid populations.

Gunawan plans to graduate in December and begin graduate studies.

Pursuing Interests
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,’’ Tufts said.

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 puzzle.’’

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 science.

“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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