Petri dishes contain bacteria sit on black laboratory tableWhat if soil from the Wingate University campus contains bacteria that could lead to a new antibiotic? And what if commissioning students to collect, isolate and identify that potentially life-saving bacteria could ignite within them a new passion for the sciences?

These possibilities are the driving force behind Dr. Debra Davis’ work with the Small World Initiative, an international effort to create more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) grads while also tackling the problem of antimicrobial resistance.

The SWI essentially uses hands-on learning to both ignite students’ interest in science and, hopefully, use crowdsourcing to develop new antibiotics.

A new approach to teaching

The SWI has its roots in a 2011 report issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The report basically said that we need to change how we teach, that we need more discovery-based learning, more active engagement,” says Davis, an assistant professor in Wingate’s Biology Department.

In response to the report, President Obama created a task force that led to the launch of the SWI at Yale University in 2012. By the fall of 2014, Davis had been trained in the curriculum. The next spring she taught it in her Microbial Worlds class, which targeted non-science majors, and started to see firsthand the interest it sparked.

“Half of that class were members of the football team, and they didn’t really know what they had signed up for,” Davis says with a laugh. “When they realized they would really have to study and work hard, it was the lab that kept them coming, kept them in the class and interested.

“That’s the key. If we get students interested early, they will persist, so we can combat the high dropout rate in the STEM majors.”

Davis, who began her own love affair with microbes as an undergraduate, says part of the beauty of the Small World Initiative is that it puts students in a lab setting right away, challenging them to become researchers from the get-go. Another appealing aspect: It starts with something familiar and easy to obtain – soil.

“They make decisions about where to collect the soil, what type of media they will use to grow their bacteria,” she says. “They decide how many bacteria to transfer and screen to see if they are antibiotic producers. It’s all their choice.”

Female college student in white lab coat holds glass stick in flame.Open-ended experiments

That freedom and the open-ended nature of the experiments performed in the lab are what inspired Kaylan McCain to sign up for an independent study to continue researching the bacteria she found in her own backyard in Monroe during last fall’s SWI portion of her microbiology class.

“Usually in a lab, there is an expected result. You have a procedure; you follow the procedure, and you get the result,” McCain says. “In Small World, there is not a set answer in the end.”

For her, there is not even yet an end to the research. She started out with 19 isolates, narrowed those down to the 10 that showed antibiotic properties and has found one bacteria that produces three different antibiotics.

“Some of the isolates had inconclusive identifications, so I would like to figure out exactly what they are,” says McCain, a biology major who finds herself spending more and more time in the lab. “I also plan to extract the antibiotics from each of my isolates and then test the antibiotics. It would be so cool if I found a bacteria that hasn’t been completely researched, a new antibiotic producer.”

McCain knows that any new antibiotic could take years to reach the pharmaceutical market and actually be used to battle illness. “It has to be extracted, purified and tested to see what it works against and to make sure that it doesn’t harm people,” she says. Even so, the quest keeps her interested and optimistic. More than two-thirds of antibiotics originate from soil bacteria or fungi.

Armed with an SWI binder full of suggested experiments, McCain is more comfortable and confident in the lab than she was before embarking on the Small World Initiative. She says she’s also more detail-oriented, realizing that with no pre-set outcomes, it’s up to her to figure out what she’s seeing under the microscope and what it all means.

Finding answers

“There are certain things I wouldn’t have noticed before that I have had to start noticing,” McCain says. “It has certainly made me a lot more independent in my work. Instead of constantly asking Dr. Davis questions, I’m finding out the answers for myself.”

Davis says some of the answers that the Small World Initiative helps provide are as much about students as they are about microbes.

“What we are finding in our department is that we get a lot of students who want to go to grad programs: pharmacy, physician assistant, physical therapy,” she says. “They come in and maybe for whatever reason they decide they don’t want to do that. So then what do they do? Having this type of course is great because what it does for those students is, it gives them an idea of research they can do. Then they go find where their interest lies.”

McCain expects to present some of her findings at Wingate’s Creative and Investigative Partnership Symposium this spring, as will Mikhayla Turner, a Wingate student who is spending this semester exploring bioremediation with some of the microbes she isolated during SWI.

Meanwhile, Davis’ role with the Small World Initiative has grown. She chairs the SWI Training Committee and is part of a huge group of SWIPIs (SWI partner instructors) from more than 170 institutions in 35 states and 12 countries.

Davis helped lead a six-day SWI workshop at the University of Connecticut last summer and says interest in the crowdsourcing of antibiotic discovery at colleges and, more recently, high schools is “blowing up.”

“This is creating opportunities for students all over the world,” Davis says.

The next SWI class offered at Wingate will be this fall. Students will begin registering for classes next week.

March 16, 2017