Summer research team develops bond over bacterial viruses

Dr. Walter Shumate, Kenya Dials, & Lucas Williams

Dr. Walter Shumate’s unique research team makes a great laboratory experience. Shumate and his two students, Kenya Dials and Lucas Williams, are studying at Michigan State University this summer as participants in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team Program for Minority-Serving Institutions.

Dr. Shumate and Lucas came from Wiley College, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Texas and Kenya came from Miles College, an HBCU in Alabama. Michigan State University is a major partner, along with six other research universities, in the recently named DHS-funded Center for Advancing Microbial Research Assessment (CAMRA). The mission of CAMRA is to develop and transfer creative methods to assess the risk of exposure to pathogens in air, water, soil, and on hard surfaces in both indoor and outdoor environments.

The intent of the DHS program is to provide research opportunities to diverse and highly talented individuals in order to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at minority-serving institutions in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS. In addition, the program is designed to engage early-career faculty, along with undergraduate and graduate students, in research that will provide them opportunities to understand the mission and research needs of DHS and to advance research areas of importance to the department.

In this program, faculty and student team members typically attend the same institution during the academic year, but Dr. Shumate agreed to allow Kenya to join his team when her faculty member was unable to participate at the last minute.

This student team turned out to be a perfect match for Shumate. His favorite part of the experience was the “feeling of camaraderie” in the lab. “A good lab performs at its best when each member acts as part of a whole unit, and this was fortunately the case in our lab. That feeling of cooperation while striving towards a common goal is truly a blessing.” Dr. Shumate has a PhD in physical chemistry, with both Lucas and Kenya working on undergraduate degrees in biology.

Dr. Shumate and his students are studying survival times of viruses on household surfaces, as well as which commercially available methods are best for recovering viruses from surfaces.

A typical day at the lab consists of recovering a model virus from the surface in question or examining the virus and calculating exactly how much of it was recovered. The research will determine which methods would be easiest and most effective for a common household to decontaminate household surfaces.

“I was not fully aware of the methods by which bacteriophages (viruses that specifically target bacteria) can exploit their bacterial hosts, or how careful a researcher must be to avoid contamination,” Shumate said. “I have learned more about microbiology than I ever thought I would know, and more about how I should carry myself as an educator and role model.”

The DHS program presented a great opportunity for Shumate. He plans to incorporate the theories of proper lab practice into his courses, and a collaborative research proposal is already in the works between Wiley College and Michigan State University. He plans to continue his research upon returning to Wiley.