CULLOWHEE – Three Western Carolina University students are heading to Washington, D.C., to present results from their undergraduate research at the May 18-22 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
Biology students to present research
Two of the students – Kim M. Lowery of St. Cloud, Fla., and Kristina Reid of Vale – are seniors in Western’s biology program, while the third student, Gina M. Parise of Harmony, graduated with honors on May 10 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

All three students honed their research skills in Western’s microbiology laboratory under the direction of Sean O’Connell, assistant professor of biology.

The research results that Lowery will take to the ASM gathering are on the cutting edge of forensic microbiology and her findings have drawn the attention of meeting organizers, who have scheduled a session addressing forensic microbiology for the first time, O’Connell said.

“Forensic microbiology is a new field that Kim may actually play a part in pioneering,” he said. “Her interest in forensics, mainly in the field of crime investigations, and my background in microbial ecology got us brainstorming last spring on a way to combine those interests into her senior thesis project.

“We came up with an experiment to look at microbial decomposers of animal tissue in a cave. Specifically, we wanted to test whether we could use bacterial colonizers of meat, an analog to human remains, as a way of dating how long a body may have been decomposing or from where a body originated,” O’Connell said.

Forensic research has been done using insects, but smaller life forms haven’t been examined in those processes, he said.

Lowery used Gregory’s Cave in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as her study site. She designed sample systems that excluded all but bacteria from meat specimens, and then took samples from three areas of the cave over a span of three weeks, O’Connell said.

“She is still finishing up her study, but it appears that we may be able to see differences in microbial communities based on cave location and time of sampling. To date, no one has done similar work, and that attracted the attention of the ASM when we submitted her abstract for the meeting. Kim will likely be talking with some experts in microbiology who will be very interested in her work,” O’Connell said.

ASM officials requested a summary of Lowery’s project -- “Bacterial Dynamics in a Cave Ecosystem: Tissue Decomposition and Heterotroph Distributions from Three Zones of Gregory’s Cave, Great Smoky Mountains National Park” -- to place in the meeting press room. The ASM General Meeting usually generates broad press coverage, attracting journalists from the United States and abroad.

Lowery’s poster project that will be presented at the ASM meeting is co-authored by Reid, who also will present her own poster, which addresses research Reid has conducted in bacterial biodiversity in Gregory’s Cave and forested ecosystems in the Smokies. In her project, “Bacterial BioBlitz of Twelve Unique Environments in Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Reid has found 165 bacterial isolates, and she is working on finding out the identities of the bacteria using DNA sequence analysis.

Reid has received funding to continue her work this summer through the ASM’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

Parise won a travel grant from the ASM to attend the Washington meeting and present her research on cold-loving, one-celled organisms known as Archaea. She studied soil samples from two high elevations sites in the national park and found seven species of Archaea that had not been previously found there, and which may be new to science, park officials have said.

Parise completed the required courses to receive her bachelor’s degree at Western in three years, and the 20-year-old will enter the doctoral program at Wake Forest University next fall to study molecular genetics.

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Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2003
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