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A Professor and His Research Intern: Going Viral

If you scoop some mud out of a pond or swamp, put it in a small glass cylinder and expose it to light, you can watch the colors of the mixture change in the ensuing weeks and months. Scientists have determined that these color changes mean billions of bacteria and viruses — up to a trillion in a single gram of soil — are interacting with each other and with organic matter in the soil. They know quite a bit about the bacteria but much less about the viruses.

Assistant biology professor David Esteban and Margaret Ginoza ’16 with a gazillion viruses in Winogradsky columns / Photo: Stockton Photo Inc.

Assistant biology professor David Esteban and Margaret Ginoza ’16 are hoping to change that. They’ve hatched a plan to isolate billions of the viruses from the rest of the matter in the soil in these cylinders, called Winogradsky columns, and identify as many as they can through DNA sequencing. Esteban has dubbed the project, “Who’s there?”

“Bacteria are easier to study because they have so many known functions, but there are many viruses we know absolutely nothing about,” he says. “They’re so diverse they have little in common with other viruses, so the only way to categorize them is to round up a bunch, do the DNA sequencing, and find out how many different ones you’ve got.”

Ginoza, a science, technology, and society major from Manhattan Beach, CA, says she became interested in finding ways to identify viruses after taking biology and microbiology courses with Esteban. She’s not only helping with the research itself but also with a new fundraising technique to cover the cost of the project.  This spring Ginoza produced a four-minute video describing their research project and put it on a crowd-funding website called experiment.com. They raised the necessary $4,500 for the project through the crowd funding site and will begin their research next fall.

“As a science, technology, and society major, I’m interested not just in the science itself but also in the social aspect, the way money is raised in the scientific community,” she says.

The project is the first at Vassar to use online crowd funding, but it’s a technique that is being used at other colleges and universities as more traditional government funding has become more scarce, says Gary Hohenberger, Vassar’s director of corporate foundations and government relations. “What (Esteban and Ginoza) have created is a promising model for the funding of other projects,” Hohenberger says.

Vassar already has an established relationship with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the organization that manages the funds collected through experiment.com. “They’re a trusted agency that we’ve worked with in the past,” Hohenberger says.

When Esteban and Ginoza begin their research, they’ll maintain an ongoing relationship with their donors. One of the requirements of the grant is that the researchers post photos, videos, and written reports on the progress of their work. “We’ll be keeping all our donors up to date on our successes – and on any roadblocks we hit along the way,” Esteban says. “All of our findings will be made public.”

Esteban says he hopes that by sharing all their findings, he and Ginoza will help other scientists conduct further studies about viruses using the Winogradsky column as a model for conducting the research. “We hope to be able to show this model system is an effective way to study viruses,” he says.

—Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, May 1, 2015