They’re spending their summer holed up in a lab, but don’t feel sorry for Hofstra biology majors Joshua Pimentel ’19 and Samantha Lau ’19. It’s exactly where they want to be.
Both students were awarded fellowships to study microbes under the supervision of Javier Izquierdo, an assistant professor of biology.
“There are no classes to interrupt their research,” Izquierdo said. “They have the freedom to dig deep into what they are doing.
Pimentel received the national Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) for his ongoing study of beach grass microbiomes. Lau’s Department of Biology Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship involves the study of microbes that produce succinate, a commodity used in the production of polyester and plastics.
This is Pimentel’s second summer working with Izquierdo to study the microorganisms that promote the growth of beach grass on Long Island’s south shore. Beach grass and sand dunes provide protection for coastal communities against natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy.
“Dr. Izquierdo encouraged me to apply but explained that it was a highly competitive, national award,” said Pimentel, who is from Deer Park, NY. I was very surprised and happy to learn I was chosen. I think that the data and research experience I already had gave me an edge.”
ASM is hoping to attract more students to professions in the microbial sciences. “Many biology students wind up going on to medical school and other health-related professions,” he said, “ASM is hoping students like myself will stay on a more research-oriented path and pursue careers in microbiology, pathology and immunology.”
In fact, he was on a track for medical school himself. Then he met Izquierdo.
Professor Javier Izquierdo’s continued research of beach grass was awarded a $476,000 grant in March 2018 by the National Science Foundation. More recently, the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute accepted Izquierdo’s proposal to sequence 48 genomes of plant-associated microbes, which is the next phase of the beach grass project. The microbes are ones the professor and his students have isolated and found to be the most likely to produce healthy and resilient plants.
Izquierdo explains that this research could also be applied on a wider scale. “It could work on crops or plants that feed people. Companies are looking into microorganisms as a way of improving plant health. This way, you don’t have to change plants genetically. You can add a microbe into the soil to make it healthier.”
This is Izquierdo’s third summer working on the beach grass research. Among the students who have participated, some are now working as research scientists for the federal Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, and many are in medical school.
“It is wonderful to see that students have had a chance to isolate and perform all kinds of tests on these organisms over the past few years,” he said. “Now we will get to understand them much better with a detailed map of their genomes. This work will pave the way for many future studies in my lab showing how microbes and their plant beneficiaries establish symbiotic relationships that result in healthier plants.”
“I’m at a crossroads now,” Pimentel said, “When I first came to Hofstra, my original intention was to go to medical school. Now that I’ve been working with Dr. Izquierdo, a career in research has definitely become something I’m seriously considering.
“I thought the experience would make my resume more competitive for medical school. But once I started doing the work, I found it very interesting. And the deeper I got into it, I began questioning: do I still want to go to medical school? It helped me reevaluate where I want to be.”
In addition to a sizable stipend for performing 10-12 weeks of research this summer, the fellowship will pay for all of Pimentel’s expenses in June 2019 when he attends the ASM Microbe Conference in San Francisco, where he will represent Hofstra and present his research.
Samantha Lau’s research focuses on anaerobic reactions – or chemical reactions that do not require oxygen. “I’m isolating a certain type of bacteria that produces succinate, which is used to make polyester and in the plastic industry,” she said. “It’s also used in biofuels.”
Lau, who comes from Bayside, NY, explains that the production of succinate is costly, and her work involves looking at microbes that could help produce it less expensively. “That way you can bring down the price and maximize production for manufacturers,” she said.
Although she and Pimentel and other students are working separately, the atmosphere is collegial.
“Our techniques are the same. If one of us needs help we all pitch in. We get along very well,” Lau said. Like Pimentel, she is debating whether she will go on to medical school or pursue a PhD. They’re both enrolled in the Biology Department’s five-year BS/MS program.
Izquierdo is fueled by his students’ enthusiasm. “I’m here because the students’ energy drives me,” he said. “The questions we are asking are fun and interesting and maybe they’ll have some consequence in the years to come. Another thing I like to see is that they are training each other and learning how to cooperate in a lab environment.”
And, they don’t spend all their time in the lab.
The students, who are working on the beach grass perform field work on Long Island’s south shore.
“Once a week we go to the beach,” Izquierdo said. “Whenever we are out there working at some point we just stop and think, ‘Wow, this is beautiful.’ And it hits us how lucky we all are to be doing what we love for work.”