Liz Scott and Geena Chiumento

Mentoring at Simmons: Professor and Student Analyze Genes

What do you teach at Simmons? What are you studying at Simmons? 

Dr. Scott: I teach microbiology courses in the Biology Department — including a big intro to microbiology lecture course and The Microbiology of Food, Water and Waste and the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease. I also teach the Public Health Senior Seminar.

Geena: I'm studying public health on the biology track and minoring in biostatistics. I was drawn to the public health program because of its small size, which allows extensive interaction between students and faculty

What's your favorite class to teach? What's your favorite class you've taken so far? 

Dr. Scott: BIO 221. For most students, it's their first encounter with the field of microbiology and how it relates to all of our lives — think human microbiome, infections, antibiotics, vaccinations, foods and beverages, clean water, etc. It's exciting to see students engage with all these topics.

Geena: BIO 221. That class made me discover my passion in microbiology. I loved learning about HIV/AIDS, antibiotic resistant bacteria and the debate surrounding vaccines.

Tell us about your SURPASs (Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Simmons) project. 

Dr. Scott: think Geena can answer this!

Geena: I'm doing a genetic analysis on the collected S. aureus isolates from the noses of nursing and science students. I'm using samples from the pilot study and extracting the bacteria’s DNA to test for certain genes. I'll be testing for the spa gene present in all strains of S. aureus followed by gene sequencing to find genetic relationships between the isolates. I'll also be testing for the mecA gene for antibiotic resistance present in methicillin resistant S. aureus (MRSA). We normally think of Staph and MRSA as pathogenic but studying their colonization of the human body is fascinating!

I hope to be able to correlate certain colonizing strains with certain lifestyle habits of the human carriers. One of our main questions is where and how students’ noses were first colonized with S. aureus. I hope to publish a short paper highlighting my methodology and results in the fall — and also develop this project into thesis material for my senior year.

What advice would you give to students considering participating in SURPASs?

Dr. Scott: SURPASs is an extraordinary opportunity that allows undergraduates to propose and undertake a funded research project for six weeks in May and June. Anyone who is curious about research and has an idea about something they would like to explore should think seriously about applying. This year's proposals were of a very high standard so plan ahead and spend time preparing a proposal and finding a professor to work with you.

Geena: I would suggest the student have a day-by-day plan of what they want to get accomplished throughout the six weeks. The time flies and you have to be as productive as possible. Don’t ever sell yourself short on using your budget or your time. You — with the help of Simmons professors — can make anything happen.

Why are mentoring relationships between professors and students so important?

Dr. Scott: I view mentoring as an opportunity to provide students with a safe space where they can learn and practice new skills and where it's okay for them to learn from their mistakes and take on increasing responsibility and leadership in their own learning.

Geena: Mentoring relationships make projects strong and make each individual more confident in sharing thoughts and opinions. Listening to and respecting each other’s ideas is really how anything gets done in research, that’s why these relationships are so important.

What's your Simmons moment?

Dr. Scott: The amazing way that staff and faculty work together to support our students. Earlier this year, it looked like one my senior advisees, a wonderful young woman from West Africa and a public health major, was not going to be able to graduate in May because she didn't have the credits she needed. With the help of our Associate Dean and Registrar, the situation was cleared up and she was able to walk across the stage with her family in attendance. When she reached the stage, she looked at me and touched her heart and I knew that this was a Simmons moment! 

SURPASs is another such example, it takes a lot of work by faculty and staff from many different departments and the support of a very generous donor to make this program work. It's so worth it when you see what the students are able to achieve. 

Geena: When a peer and I presented our S. aureus research at the American Society for Microbiology Conference this past June in Boston. Although we were not physically on campus, having a small, yet recognizable “Simmons College” on my name tag made me realize how grateful I am to belong here. 

Simmons is an important place for me because it provided me the opportunity to present at an international conference. It was one of the most special days of my life!

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