The Bug Man

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

by Elliott Welker

As a graduate student in the Microbiological Sciences, I have worked my share of weekends and late nights in a research lab. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside a number of exceptional undergraduates who share my fondness for hard work and passion for research. One of those students is Ben Martin.

A native to North Dakota, Ben came to NDSU in 2011 as a biochemistry major after hearing about the cutting-edge research being performed here. He took the typical class load for an incoming freshman in the science field, but there was one class that he found particularly engaging. It was Microbiology 350 lab, taught by Janice Haggart. There, Ben got the chance to perform hands-on microbial techniques that, up until that point, he had only heard or read about. Microbiology 350 lab inspired him so much that he changed his major to microbiology.

“I really enjoyed doing the hands-on work in the microbiology lab and found that I thrive in a research environment.”

Ben’s newfound passion landed him the opportunity to work in Dr. Kendra Greenlee’s lab in the Biological Sciences Department as an undergraduate research assistant. For about a year, Ben worked on a morphological study aimed at identifying and characterizing how matrix metalloproteinases (proteins that are also found in humans) are involved in tracheal growth and development of the tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta. His work in the Greenlee lab helped contribute to a better understanding of the role of matrix metalloproteinases in human respiratory function and disease progression.

Ben routinely performed techniques, including DNA and RNA (95% RNA, 5% DNA) extractions, cDNA synthesis, primer design, polymerase chain reaction, electrophoresis, RNA inhibition or “KO studies,” and protein expression analysis. One of the more important tasks he was responsible for was maintaining the hornworm colonies, a task that included induced manipulation of oviposition cycles for egg selection and monitoring and controlling growth cycles. Ben experienced firsthand the frustrations associated with lab work, but always takes a lesson from these moments.

“Learn from your mistakes, even the bad results have meaning.”

In the fall of 2012, Ben joined Dr. Nathan Fisher’s lab in the Microbiological Sciences Department. Dr. Fisher had just started his lab and was interested in characterizing the virulence of the bacteria, Francisella and Burkholderia,using several insect models. Thanks to Ben’s experience with molecular techniques and insect handling, he was offered the opportunity to help establish the Fisher lab. Ben dove head first into the work of establishing and maintaining colonies of Galleria mellonella wax worms and Blaptica dubia cockroaches to be used in research.

Currently, Ben is working on determining the dose-response rate post bacterial injection of each insect model with the assistance of two additional undergraduates whom he is supervising (even though he himself is still an undergraduate). This opportunity is allowing him to gain experience in both a supervisory role and to continue to hone his laboratory techniques. Ben continues to put in long hours and late nights in the lab with one main objective in mind:

“Some people are in it for the money and only want to take the job that pays the best, but my primary goal is to help people.”

Regardless of his motives, I am proud to work alongside such a hardworking and reliable undergraduate. Also, having some company in the lab on those late nights and weekends doesn’t hurt either.

Ben recently presented the research he has done in the Fisher lab at the North Central Branch Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology on October 11th in Brookings, South Dakota. His poster won third place in the undergraduate poster category and was titled: “Development and validation of insect assays for high-throughput analysis of Francisella and Brukholderia spp. virulence factors: Yet another way to get rid of cockroaches!”

Tobacco Hornworm Image: Daniel Schwen.

Wax Worm Image: C Joe V.