Freshmen students win 1st place in Capital of Texas Research Conference

Freshmen Sai Sagireddy and Mary Mersereau win Capital of Texas Research award for finding a more efficient way of testing bacteria in soil. Christina Cannady | Photographer

By Mallory Harris | Staff Writer

Freshmen Sai Sagireddy and Mary Mersereau worked together to find a better way to test bacteria in soil, and because of their research, they won first place at the Capital of Texas Research Conference earlier this month.

Mersereau, who is from Ponte Verde, Fla., said the duo decided to apply to the research conference on a whim. With different levels within the conference, Mersereau said they were first selected for the poster presentation and were surprised to be admitted into the final round.

“We never even thought about winning,” Sagireddy, who is from Trinidad and Tobago, said. “We were there for the exposure and to see what research there is out in the field because while we were exposed to research happening at Baylor, we didn’t really know because of COVID-19,”

Their award-winning research found a way to make the drawn-out process of finding bacteria in soil more efficient. Breaking down the project, Mersereau explained how normally when a group tests a soil sample for bacteria, the original protocol causes a week-long delay in finding results.

However with ten groups in one lab, Mersereau and Sagireddy thought there must be a faster way for the group to find phages. By changing some materials and testing new methods, they found a way to test 24 samples all at once within that same one-week time frame.

“If you don’t progress with the isolation protocol, you miss out on learning all the other microbiology techniques,” Mersereau said. “And so, if this protocol allows students to collect more phages, they’ll be able to get a full experience.”

The project was completed in partnership with the work students are doing in the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program led by Dr. Tamarah Adair.

Rooted in microbiology, Sagireddy explained how their 24 MultiWell Protocol has goals of teaching other students about microbiology techniques as well as finding phages.

“So, while students find phages, they’re able to understand more about microbiology and are allowed to actually test the theories they come up with,” Sagireddy said. “You can also use [the protocol] to do comparative studies. Now that you have more places to put soil to test, you can potentially test different things.”

Their research, however, is not done. For the second part of their research, Sagireddy said they now have a specific bacteria phage that they are analyzing at a genome level. Concerning the new protocol, Sagireddy said that they are trying to add it onto Baylor’s guide for other students to utilize and conduct research with.

By winning this award, it shows what course-based research classes can bring out of students, Adair said in an article. Sagireddy and Mersereau saw a technique that worked and wanted to make it better. Sagireddy explained that the SEA-PHAGES program is open to any undergraduate student in the STEM field. He said he wants to encourage more students to apply as it greatly impacted his first semester at Baylor.

“We just gained an excitement for research, I feel like we’ve been exposed to so many techniques that we never would have gotten to do our freshman year,” Mersereau said.