By David Garza | Reporter
Green-colored water does not only contain algae—it can also contain deadly toxins. The cause for these toxins and their long-term effects on atmospheric climate change are what the Biological Systems Research class is attempting to uncover.
Dr. Jacquelyn Duke and Dr. Thad Scott co-teach the Biological Systems Research class, BIO 3300 and BV90, a research-centered class that lasts the entire academic year and is limited to just 12 biology majors per year. The class is meant to provide students with experience in research and “how to communicate [the research],” Duke said.
The class is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Scott said that the grant is meant for the “study of harmful algal blooms.” Algal blooms start off as phytoplankton composed of algae and “when they grow really fast and really dense, [they become] a bloom. It’s how green the water is,” Scott said.
The class’ experiments are set up to “emulate the potential conditions that cause these problems to occur, and one of the things changing on a global scale are the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere,” Scott said.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has almost doubled in the last 50 years from when humans first evolved, and this also increases the amount of carbon dioxide in water. The experiments simulate climate change from when humans evolved with the algal blooms and what the future climate may be like with the algal blooms.
For the class, the students read articles and design experiments to figure out the “gap in the literature so that they understand how our studies are important to contributing to the body of knowledge,” Duke said.
The class is schedule for Tuesdays and Thursdays but the “students collect data every day,” Duke said. Scott said that somebody has been in the lab every day since the experiment began.
This year, the students will be presenting their findings in the 10th Annual US Symposium on Harmful Algae. According to Duke, in the spring semester of 2020, their findings will be published in a peer reviewed journal.
“Most of the students we have are pre-med,” Scott said. “What our class does is make them more capable of understanding how medical research can inform their practice because now they’ve actually done research and really understand what’s happening. It makes them more scientifically literate.”
The specific type of bloom being studied in the class is called cyanobacteria.
Recently in Austin, “there was a bloom in Lady Bird Lake. Some people took their pet swimming that day and it killed [the pet]. These blooms form compounds that can be toxic for consumption by mammals, including humans.”
The toxins in Lady Bird Lake “were neurotoxins—our species [of algal bloom] actually produce hepatotoxins, which target the liver,” Duke said.
Duke is a senior lecturer and Scott is part of the research faculty. According to Duke, “the idea was for us to team up so that we could use both our assets—my teaching with his research—and provide a much more robust, enriching experience for the students.”
In order to be a part of the class, the student must be a biology major, have taken freshman biology and genetics courses and then partake in a group interview with other potential candidates. The year-long class is worth eight credit hours, four credit hours each semester. The application opens in February and the selection is made by March.