Biology breakthrough: How WKU’s Biotechnology Center became a research hub

Western Kentucky University’s Biotechnology Center is a busy place. The Center, founded in 1996 with only seven biology faculty members, has grown to 25 members representing five departments (chemistry, agriculture, physics and astronomy, exercise science and biology).

The Biotechnology Center is home to a variety of molecular biology instruments. Because molecular biology has become more applicable to fields of study outside of biology, the Biotechnology Center is a destination for WKU professors in other departments, as well as Biology faculty, to conduct their research with equipment they might otherwise not be able to access.

A mini tour of the Biotechnology Center shows some of its facilities and equipment, including: A) Entrance to the center with new high-capacity centrifuge and fume hood; B) Main common lab area with a biological hood and general and molecular lab equipment; C) Biological Safety Level 2 room for research involving pathogens; D) Microscopy room with epifluorescence dissecting and compound microscopes; E) New real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine and thermal cyclers; and F) DNA sequencer.

Michael Smith, Ph.D., interim director of the Biotechnology Center, identified multiple examples of research underway at the center from professors in other departments besides Biology. Paul Woosley, Ph.D., of WKU’s Department of Agriculture, is testing “haylage samples for the presence of Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium that’s deadly to livestock,” Smith said. “Dr. Woosley didn’t have the necessary equipment to carry out these experiments in his department, but by becoming a member of the Biotechnology Center, he’s able to conduct all of his microbiology and molecular biology research there.”

Moon-Soo Kim, Ph.D., of WKU’s Chemistry Department, has a similar story. Kim focuses on biochemistry research—more specifically, discovering novel bioactive compounds from natural plants and their target proteins for prevention of common diseases.

“Dr. Kim is a regular user of the Biotechnology Center because the Chemistry Department doesn’t have the appropriate incubators, biological hoods and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment,” Smith said. “Some of her research would not be possible without the equipment available to her through the Biotechnology Center.”

The Biotechnology Center provides equipment that is vital for member faculty to collect preliminary data needed for grant proposals and to support research once successful proposals are funded. From 2014 to 2017, Biotechnology Center members garnered approximately $360,000 in internal funds from WKU and almost $8 million in externally funded grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation, National Science Foundation, Council of Postsecondary Education, and the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The Center has also supported local Bowling Green businesses and agencies when they’re in need of specialized equipment. For example, the Center has assisted in sample analysis for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Bel Brands USA, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service.

A) Nathan Powers using an epiflourescence microscope.
B) Afolasayo Aromiwura pipetting solutions in WKU’s Biotechnology Center.
Both students are in the Biology Department’s Joint Undergraduate-Master’s Program and are mentored by Dr. Ajay Srivastava in performing experiments aimed at understanding the function of genes involved in tumor metastasis.

Equipping the center for research and its real-world implications

Because the Biotechnology Center is a research hub for several WKU departments, it’s important to keep the center equipped with cutting-edge tools and instruments.

Earlier this year, the Center purchased a Qubit, which Smith said, “is a more accurate method of detecting DNA, RNA and protein concentrations than our previous NanoDrop spectrophotometer. Having this machine allows our faculty to improve their research—they can be more confident about their starting concentrations of nucleic acids.”

Another recent addition to the Center is a new real-time PCR system, which “several researchers use to monitor how genes are expressed in cells following different experimental treatments,” Smith said.

Jill Maples, Ph.D., of WKU’s School of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport, is using the system to examine “how several genes involved in fat metabolism change in response to exercise, as well as the differences in fat metabolism in pregnant and non-pregnant women,” Smith said. It is not always easy to predict what sort of far-reaching and long-term influence research will have on applicable populations and industries. Maples, along with Rachel Tinius, Ph.D., also of the School of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport, are collaborating on a study of the health consequences of obesity on women and their offspring, a topic that Smith said is of particular importance to WKU’s home state, given that Kentucky has “one of the highest obesity rates in the U.S.”

Another study might just change current chemotherapy treatments—thanks to the zebrafish (yes, you read that correctly!). Smith is using the Center’s Zeiss Axioplan microscope, which creates high-resolution images, to image the sensory hair cells in the inner ears of zebrafish. This collaborative study with Kevin Williams, Ph.D., of the Chemistry Department, allows Smith and Williams to examine how new platinum compounds affect cancer and inner ear hair cells.

“The goal of this research is to find novel chemotherapy compounds with reduced side effects, since current platinum-based chemotherapies such as cisplatin are ototoxic and produce significant hearing loss,” Smith said.

Biotechnology Center

Meagan Walters, a biology-agriculture double major undergraduate student, is one of several student employees at WKU’s Biotechnology Center.

Preparing the next generation of scientists

Like other centers and departments within Western Kentucky University, the Biotechnology Center offers students invaluable opportunities to not only participate in various research studies, but also learn how to operate relevant equipment.

The Biology Department has responded to the nationwide focus on STEM education and current trends in science teaching practices by incorporating course-based research experiences into their curriculum. These opportunities start as early as the freshmen and sophomore years. Courses such as Biol 212, Genome Discovery and Exploration; Biol 312, Bioinformatics; and Biol 322, Introduction to Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, allow students to learn how the scientific process works by actively engaging in research projects.

For example, the Genome Discovery and Exploration class, implemented by Rodney King, Ph.D., and Claire Rinehart, Ph.D., both of WKU’s Biology Department, has been offered at WKU for the last 10 years and is a partnership between Howard Hughes Medical Institute and WKU. Not only do students learn techniques and how to use sophisticated laboratory equipment, but they also generate publishable data. For example, students who take Biol 212 and Biol 312 routinely publish their data in Genbank, the national DNA sequence database. Here, fully annotated genomes of viruses isolated and characterized by WKU students are made available to the larger scientific community. Without the resources and equipment provided by the Biotechnology Center, these types of opportunities would not be possible.

“In order to prepare our students for the jobs they’ll be hired for, they need to be trained on the latest equipment,” Smith said. “Both our introductory and upper level biology classes often use the Center’s equipment. For example, our BIOL 350 and BIOL 450 molecular biology and molecular genetics classes utilize numerous pieces of equipment in the center. Sometimes their entire laboratory is held inside the Center, an amazing experience for students to work inside of an actual laboratory instead of a classroom.”

In addition to using the Center as an extension of the classroom, Smith said a variety of students work at the Center at any given time. Four students are currently employed to help run the Center. This hands-on laboratory experience has helped past student employees land biology-relevant jobs in biotech firms, medical technology programs, food processing plants and state agencies, or be accepted into Ph.D. or pre-professional programs.

Additionally, from 2014 to 2017, the Center has annually supported the research of approximately four postdoctoral researchers, 18 graduate students and 49 undergraduates, giving them the fully equipped facilities and firsthand experience that better prepares them for continuing education and/or their careers.

“Of the students that perform research in the Center each year, an average of 12 are accepted into graduate or pre-professional programs including medical, dental, optometry, pharmacy, physical therapy or veterinary schools,” Smith said. “Over the past four years, an average of 10 students publish their research in theses and journal articles, and 72 give oral and poster presentations of their research at scientific conferences each year.”

This continual focus on immersive science exposure is not just available for collegiate students. The Center also prioritizes ongoing community outreach. Earlier this year, for example, Biotechnology Center Coordinator Naomi Rowland, along with Center employees, brought supplies and adapted protocols to show four “simple but impressive” modules to gifted fourth, fifth and sixth grade students at Alvaton Elementary School, Smith said.

“The students and teachers loved it so much, we’ve been asked to do four more modules this fall,” Rowland said. “The plan is to design a total of eight modules that will be repeated each fall and spring as a long-term outreach with this school. And once the modules are optimized, we would like to develop relationships like this with other schools in our community.”

With a continually growing focus on STEM curriculum and careers, this sort of partnership between the Biotechnology Center and area schools is increasingly important to help young students better understand scientific research and what it can do. Not only does it help increase the likelihood that more young students will forge their own paths in the sciences, but also that part of their journey will be spent at Western Kentucky University. There’s still so much to learn and discover, and the Biotechnology Center is the perfect place to push the boundaries of possibility.