Research in Ripon lab prepares student for medical school

Samantha Petroski ’15 has always held a variety of interests. As a biology and German major and chemistry minor, her research and academics reflect this.

This summer, Petroski was involved in an innovative project after Associate Professor of Biology Mark Kainz approached her about participating. She examined the microbiomes, a body’s commensal bacteria, of bluebirds.

“(The work) sounded intriguing because nobody has ever tried to do this before,” Petroski says. She studied the kinds of microbiomes that live in bluebirds’ intestines by extracting bacterial DNA from fecal samples.

Within biology, researchers estimate about 100 phyla (large groups) of bacteria exist, and these bacteria play various roles in animals’ health, development and disease. Petroski is building new research with Kainz.

“I collect the fecal samples and amplify the DNA,” she says. “Then the DNA is transformed into E. Coli cells. After that, the DNA is sequenced, and I can actually see which nucleotides make up the sequence. Then it’s just a matter of matching the sequence to an already known sequence of a bacterium.”

Petroski learned first-hand how the scientific method of examining and re-examining hypotheses often plays out in research. “I just learned that I need to expect failure,” she says. “Failure is sometimes not a bad thing because you might not have found out the protocol for a procedure but you found out how not to do it — which is just as important but leaves you far less satisfied.”

Her research was funded by the Dean of Faculty office.

“Samantha’s research project is based on collaboration between my lab and Memuna Khan’s lab,” Kainz says. “She is looking at the makeup of the microbial population in the gut of the eastern bluebird. The importance of the makeup of an animal’s microbiome (population of bacteria in the intestinal tract) is becoming more and more appreciated as a factor that affects the nutrition, response to hormones, and immune system of the animal.

“We are beginning to understand the makeup of the microbiomes of humans and domesticated animals, but we don’t understand the microbiomes of wild animals. Samantha’s research is a contribution toward understanding the interactions of resident bacteria and a wild animal.”

Petroski is continuing her research with her senior seminar, with a complimentary report with which to pair the research.

The process of research is proving to be invaluable for her. “I want to go to medical school,” Petroski says. “This research is helping me get there because I already have experience in clinical settings working as a CNA (certified nursing assistant) and in the hospital. Now I have research experience to add to my resumé as well.”

Petroski encourages students to ask questions and perform research. “Not everyone has the opportunity to attempt to answer their own scientific question and establish protocol to answer it,” she says. “To have that chance as an undergrad is incredible, not to mention it will put me ahead of other candidates for jobs and grad schools.”

Kaylie Longley ’15
Saint Francis, Wisconsin

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