After working for nearly three months to create an artificial vesicle, Rebecca Irwin achieved her breakthrough. “That was my first big success,” says Irwin, a Binghamton University bioengineering major from Webster, N.Y. “We’ve been studying the growth of biofilms, and our first step was to make these really small, empty vesicles. It was so new that we hadn’t done it before, and at the end of the summer, I finally succeeded. It was my first real contribution to the research.”
Funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that supports interdisciplinary undergraduate research, Irwin worked on a pair of related experiments with Paul Chiarot, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Jeffrey Schertzer, an assistant professor of biological sciences. In the first, Schertzer studied how vesicles — small bubbles within a cell, enclosed by lipids — affect communication within a bacterial community; in the second, he examined the ways shear stress affects the growth of biofilms.
“What’s unique about this collaboration is that Rebecca’s device allows Jeff to grow biofilms in situ, to add stress in a controllable way, and to observe the structure of the biofilms, which are actually quite complex,” says Chiarot, who supervised Irwin’s work in designing and building the instruments. “Rebecca took leadership on this project, which requires a lot of initiative and a lot of independence. That would have been challenging for a graduate student, and for an undergraduate, it’s even more impressive.”
With biofilms all around us — between our teeth, in the slime on a rock, inside a medical implant — there’s hope this research will reveal what does and doesn’t make them grow, which would have medical, biological and environmental applications. By learning how to disrupt their growth, scientists can decrease the risk of infection; by learning how to increase their growth, they can create new industrial cleaning agents to reduce pollution.
Both are part of the motivation that drives Irwin, a 2015 graduate who plans to pursue a doctorate in bioengineering, and whose participation on these projects was a life-changing experience. “As an undergraduate, being able to do research at this level is really cool,” she says. “It’s different from being in a lab as part of a class, where there’s a desired outcome that your professor wants you to have.”