Small Signs of a Big Impact

Microbiologist and professor Gyorgyi Nyerges offers students opportunity to study the tiniest signs of antibiotic resistance and climate change through Pacific University’s research programs

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Eric Layton spends most of his year in rural eastern Oregon, teaching high school science and technology at North Powder Charter School.

This past summer, though, he could be found in Pacific University’s Strain Science Center, working in a lab alongside Assistant Biology Professor Gyorgyi Nyerges and a handful of undergraduate students. This summer, he’ll do the same.

The opportunity is part of a Partners in Science grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, pairing high school science teachers with university professors to experience research firsthand and take that experience back to their students.

That’s important, Layton said, because the students he teaches aren’t always exposed to a lot of variety. North Powder is a tiny community of less than 500 people. Once a stagecoach stop, today it’s a rural outpost 30 minutes from either La Grande or Baker City.

The town’s one school, North Powder Charter School, serves students from kindergarten through high school. The community’s economy is primarily agriculture-based, and popular school activities including things like the ag competition. But every opportunity to expand horizons is appreciated.

“If I can bring whatever I learn here back into the classroom, this plays into (my students’) life experience a bit more,” Layton said.

The same is true for the undergraduate students who have the opportunity to participate in summer research at Pacific University, with Nyerges and other professors.

Mattie Huffman ’14 has long known she wanted a career in the health professions, and, inspired by her parents’ work, she’s looking at pharmacy. She’s spent two summers working in a pharmacy, but this year offered a new experience on Nyerges’ research team.

She and Layton are both supporting Nyerges’ research into antibacterial resistant organisms found in agricultural soil. Antibacterial resistance is a growing problem, Nyerges said, as antibiotics are more widely used and eventually become ineffective.

“Everybody talks about it in a hospital setting,” Nyerges said, but she added that veterinary medicine uses more antibiotics than human medicine and that antibiotics may leech into soil and water in the natural world. “We want to see if resistant organisms are out there as well, not just in hospitals.”

It’s been an eye-opening experience, Huffman said.

“People have the idea that research is successful a lot of the time,” she said. “It’s a process. There’s a lot of trial and error.”

Meanwhile, Devin Fachko ’14 and Mina Kim ’15 have been working on another of Nyerges’ projects, a collaboration with the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction, or CMOP, studying microorganisms in the Columbia River estuary that use or produce methane. The center is the only National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center in Oregon and one of only two focused on ocean issues.

“I’ve learned a lot of lab skills,” Fachko said, adding that working with microorganisms is an exercise in problem-solving.

“You can’t see what’s going on with them, so you’re trying to figure out what’s going on.”

The Pacific students will use their summer experiences as part of their senior projects and hopefully will have a leg up on research experience when it comes time to apply to graduate schools or research jobs, Nyerges said.

“I think they have a great experience,” she said. “This is the best way of learning, because they actually do it.