Professor Melanie Berkmen has received a $360,000 National Science Foundation grant that will support original student research aimed at advancing scientific knowledge related to how bacteria are able to spread antibiotic resistance genes in hospitals and the environment.

The grant allows Berkmen’s chemistry/biochemistry lab to continue work begun in 2012 through an earlier NSF grant.

Through the grant, Berkmen will mentor four students each summer for the next three years as they investigate bacterial mating of Bacillus subtilis, a common soil bacterium that is easy to work with and has attributes in common with many other bacteria.

Research focus

“I’m mentoring students as they develop a better understanding of how bacteria are able to transfer DNA from one cell to another,” said Berkmen.

Melani BerkmenShe foresees the knowledge gained about the mechanism involved in Bacillus subtilis gene transfer being applied to the problem of stopping the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.

“You can’t break a system without first knowing how it works,” said Berkmen, as students set to work on their projects in a laboratory on the top floor of Suffolk’s Somerset academic building.

The discoveries yielded by the research may prove significant in time, but the major focus of the grant is to train the Suffolk undergraduates in discovery-based research. The students, who receive a stipend, work as a team, learning how projects are interrelated and developing collaborative and team leadership skills.

“You don’t learn to bake a cake by reading a cookbook; you have to work in the kitchen,” said Berkmen. “They are learning how to do original research, and while science is about excitement, it’s also about frustration,” with errors and unexpected outcomes to be expected—and learned from.

Meeting demand for STEM professionals

A 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology focused on the need for the United States to produce an additional 1 million college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics over the next decade.

Berkmen recognizes the importance of efforts to “streamline the STEM pipeline.”

In addition to the research effort, the NSF grant will support collaboration with Paul Kasili, a genetics professor from Bunker Hill Community College, allowing him the opportunity to conduct research at Suffolk that he might not be able to do at his institution and pass along the knowledge gained to the young scientists he is training.

Many students transfer to Suffolk after completing Bunker Hill Community College’s two-year program.

“By working together, we may come up with better strategies for those students’ transition to Suffolk’s science programs,” said Berkmen.

A path to success

Citing a 2014 Gallup poll of 30,000 college graduates that focused on what factors lead to an engaging career and a high well-being after graduation, Berkmen said that among the most important factors were:

  • Mentoring, with those who had had a strong mentor during college twice as likely as others to find success
  • Long-term projects or internships that allowed students to apply what they learned in the classroom

Berkmen’s goal is to have students spend one summer researching in her lab, giving them the experience to make them competitive to get a paid off-campus internship the following summer.

The students she has mentored have gone on to jobs in academic, biotech/pharma, and hospital labs and to pursue advanced degrees. Some examples:

  • A student working in the lab two summers ago, obtained a summer research internship at MIT last summer, and will join a prestigious Novartis pharmaceutical two-year research program this July.
  • An alumna followed her summer in Berkmen’s lab with an internship at the Scripps Research Institute and then began a doctoral program at Brown University, supported by an NSF fellowship.
  • An alumnus spent the summer following his Suffolk research lab experience at Biogen, and when he graduated the following year began working at Pfizer.

The graduates “are all doing amazing things, and they come back for career panels and tell us about what they’re doing,” said Berkmen.

Students’ accomplishments key to securing grant

Berkmen’s students show their research results at regional meetings, and many have become coauthors on her papers. “At least eight students have published their research,” she said. “It definitely helps with their careers.”

Said Berkmen: “The reason I got the grant is because of these students and their promise. In the proposal I told the NSF how much our students accomplish. They know it’s a great place to invest their money.”