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Local Students are Digging Up Dirt to Fight Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

Biochemistry students at The Ethel Walker School (Walker’s) are getting their hands dirty as they confront one of the top global health threats — the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics. This year’s class of fourteen girls has joined the Tiny Earth network, an innovative program that has students isolate bacteria from soil in their local environments that could lead to novel antibiotics. Their discoveries will be added to a national database. The Tiny Earth program also encourages students to pursue careers in scientific research.
 
“There is a growing economic need for more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates. Yet, the number of students pursuing STEM degrees has been decreasing, especially among women and minorities.” said Dr. Julia Sheldon, dean of academics at Walker’s and co-instructor of the class with Dr. Suzanne Piela.
 
Dr. Sheldon, who earned a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry at Yale University, is co-teaching the course with Dr. Piela, who earned her D.V.M. at the University of Minnesota. Walker’s honors biochemistry course runs in partnership with Tiny Earth that was founded at Yale in 2012. After completing the application process, The Ethel Walker School was chosen as one of only five high schools in the U.S. selected to participate in the initiative. Walker’s was awarded a $9,300 grant from The VWR Foundation and received additional private funding to support the start-up and ongoing fees of the five-year program that started in Fall 2016.
 
Dr. Piela notes the classroom is flipped so that the laboratory research is center stage while other activities are used to support the research process. “Our students are extremely enthusiastic to be able to contribute to a real-world issue by conducting primary research right here in our community,” said Dr. Piela. “We want the girls to learn lab skills that they will use at the college level, as well as how to advocate for their work and how to be effective in the STEM field.”
 
The honors level course for students in junior and senior classes allows the girls to conduct original hands-on field and lab research in the hunt for new antibiotics. Through a series of student-driven experiments, students collect soil samples, identify and isolate diverse bacteria, test their bacteria against clinically-relevant microorganisms, and characterize those showing inhibitory activity. This is particularly relevant since over two thirds of antibiotics originate from soil bacteria or fungi.
 
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pathogenic bacteria resistant to current antibiotics are potentially the most important medical challenge facing humans in the 21st century. If no significant action is taken by 2050, these bacteria will kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined and will result in 300 million premature deaths. While pharmaceutical companies have shifted away from developing new antibiotics, existing antibiotics are losing efficacy due to widespread antibiotic resistance.
 
Tiny Earth is a network of instructors and students focused on crowdsourcing antibiotic discovery from soil. The mission of the program is two-fold. First, it seeks to inspire students to pursue careers in science through original laboratory and field research conducted in introductory courses with the potential for global impact. Second, it aims to address a worldwide health threat — the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics — by tapping into the collective power of many student researchers concurrently tackling the same challenge, living up to its motto “Student sourcing antibiotic discovery.” Learn more at https://tinyearth.wisc.edu.
 
The Ethel Walker School is an independent, college preparatory, boarding and day school for girls in grades six through 12 plus a postgraduate year in Simsbury, CT. Since 1911, The Ethel Walker School has excelled at preparing students to make a difference in the world. Members of this diverse community are dedicated to scholarship, the arts, athletics, wellness and service. For more information, visit[http://%20www.ethelwalker.org/] www.ethelwalker.org or call (860) 408-4467. The Ethel Walker School is located at 230 Bushy Hill Road Simsbury.
 
PHOTO: Students at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury are part of a worldwide initiative to find new antibiotics to fight superbug viruses.

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