Biology professor's experience spawns first research program at National Hispanic University

Dr. Cecilia Serrano, Cesar Tapia, & Brett Dearing

A university laboratory with no ongoing research? That was exactly the dilemma facing National Hispanic University (NHU) biology professor Cecilia Serrano.

Serrano recently designed two new science laboratories on the NHU San Jose, Calif., campus—the first research facilities built at the 700-student institution. But how could she establish a program that would offer hands-on research opportunities to her students?

Serrano was pondering her situation during the summer of 2005 and discovered the answer while pursuing her own research passions. Along with two of her students, Serrano had received an appointment through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Summer Faculty and Student Research Team Program. She, Cesar Tapia, and Brett Dearing were spending 12 weeks at the University of Minnesota’s DHS Center of Excellence on Food Protection and Defense. The program is one of many research participation programs administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and specifically targets faculty and students from minority-serving institutions such as NHU.

For Serrano, the assignment was perfect. It combined her two research interests: marine biology and environmental toxins. And it connected her with established scientists who share these interests. They could ultimately help her initiate the NHU research program.

Capturing the attention of Serrano and the Center of Excellence at Minnesota is an anthrax-like bacterium, Bacillus cereus, which can cause illness in humans when meat, such as salmon, containing the bacteria is eaten.

Serrano and DHS fear that this bacterium could be used to deliberately contaminate our nation's food supply, and they are seeking ways to control the harmful effects of these bacteria in humans. But Serrano also hopes the research can lead to a way to restore the salmon population in California by providing a greater understanding of the bacteria and the environmental conditions that nurture them.

Bacillus cereus belongs to a family of bacteria, not all of whose members produce toxic effects in humans. Scientists hypothesize that subtle differences in DNA structure determine whether a member of the family will hurt humans or prove harmless. Because of those potential subtle distinctions, current research focuses on determining variations in the genetic structures of the members of this bacteria family. Accordingly, at Minnesota, under the mentorship of Drs. Sushmita Singh and Shirin Munir, Serrano learned and applied the techniques of Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction and Microarray Analysis to examine the genetic makeup of several of these similar bacteria.

While the opportunity rekindled Serrano's enthusiasm for teaching and for research, it also helped her solve the problem at NHU. She is now better prepared to pioneer genomic studies at her school using the cutting-edge tools and techniques learned during the summer, as well as her new network of scientists. To do this, Serrano is coordinating a three-way partnership between NHU, nearby Stanford University, and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota. Because her labs aren't equipped to perform the genetic research, she and her students will work in Stanford's BioX lab.

Serrano expects that carrying out this research will not only advance scientific knowledge but will also prepare NHU undergraduate students, who are typically from low-income and minority backgrounds, to continue their science studies in graduate school.

Based on the model NHU has created for incorporating the research experience with the science curriculum, ”it is realistic to think that all of our science majors can have meaningful research experiences throughout their undergraduate training,” Serrano said. “For students, most of whom are the first in their family to attend college, and for whom the dream of college would be no more than a dream were it not for NHU, this is a very significant educational approach to be taking. It has the potential to dramatically transform lives.”

The whole experience has certainly changed Serrano’s life. She has also been inspired to apply to the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health to complete all work for a Master of Public Health degree.