Student-Engaged Partnership Accelerates Undergraduate Microbiome and Cancer Research

February 24, 2022
Throughout Baylor, undergraduate students engage in top-tier research thanks to purposeful mentorship from faculty mentors and meaningful investment to provide cutting-edge equipment and access. For students in Baylor’s Human Sciences and Design Department and Honors College, a substantive partnership is opening new opportunities for discovery in microbiome research.

Leigh Greathouse, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Nutrition Science, is a leading expert in this burgeoning field, investigating the ties between gut health, diet and disease. The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms found throughout the body in areas such as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and researchers like Greathouse are pioneering new understanding in its role in human health. Her work has drawn funding from the National Institutes of Health, earned a prestigious Career Development Award from the Department of Defense to study the link between diet and colon cancer treatment and opened doors for leadership in her discipline. As meaningful as these accolades may be, they are all the more noteworthy when considered alongside another key focus: mentoring undergraduate students and including them in groundbreaking research.

“One of the best things about this job is mentoring young scientists and making sure they get the best training experience I can provide. It’s a gift to have the opportunity to work with them and help them identify what skill sets they have or what skill sets they need as we work together,” Greathouse says.


For Greathouse and her students, an opportunity to take their collaborative research to the next level came in the form of an investment from the Honors College.

Baylor’s Honors College serves approximately 1500 Baylor students across a variety of disciplines, supplementing traditional degree programs with distinctive classes, interdisciplinary programming, and intentional research and mentorship. Erika Abel, Ph.D., clinical professor of biology in the Honors Program, is a longtime friend and colleague of Greathouse. Both are cancer survivors, and both share a passion to pursue cancer research and equip students to do the same. Abel has trained Honors College students who work in Greathouse’s lab, and a conversation between the two revealed a need —Greathouse mentioned her lab would benefit from an anaerobic chamber.

An anaerobic chamber is a machine which provides an oxygen-free environment that mimics conditions within the human gut. As the recent recipient of an R15 award from the National Institutes of Health, Greathouse was beginning a novel project with students to track bacterial RNA roaming inside the gut.

“Training our undergraduate students in research can be time-consuming and costly, but it’s worth investing in. As we discussed her need, it was clear that a partnership made sense,” Abel says. “This research is a bridge between the clinical and hard sciences, and the chamber would enable us to model effects that we can apply to human populations.”

A more complete understanding of bacterial RNA binding in the GI tract could eventually help researchers block inflammation that can lead to colorectal cancer. An anaerobic chamber would facilitate more accurate research conditions and allow for the culturing of bacteria found in the human microbiome.

Abel spoke with Douglas Henry, Ph.D., Dean of the Honors College, who found it a worthy pursuit, and the Honors College supplied Greathouse’s lab with an anaerobic chamber and associated resources like a mini bioreactor array. The chamber is the first of its kind on the Baylor campus and enables students in the Honors College and Human Science and Design to grow as researchers and advance the work in Greathouse’s lab towards greater discoveries.

“We were happy to supply a needed piece of equipment that simultaneously opened doors for undergraduate research,” Henry says. “We see long-term impacts from this kind of partnership. Among them, we’re connecting students with groundbreaking research opportunities and helping them prepare with excellence for whatever their calling may be.”


Already, the anaerobic chamber is providing opportunities for students to gain experience on high-level equipment while conducting impactful research. Kaitlyn Tremble is a junior University Scholar from Boise, Idaho, with concentrations in biochemistry, molecular biology and French; Quinn Strassheim is a senior University Scholar from The Dalles, Oregon, with a concentration in molecular biology. Both Honors College students work in Greathouse’s lab, and both see multi-faceted dividends for the students who will utilize the equipment.

“The anaerobic chamber allows us to get closer to what’s actually happening in the gut, which is great for the science,” Tremble says. After spending 10 weeks over the prior summer in M.D. Anderson’s department of experiential radiation oncology, she’s further aware of the benefits of new opportunities in becoming a more complete scientist. “It’s great, too, to be able to learn on equipment like this. Any new experience that teaches you techniques or methods you might not otherwise receive is incredibly valuable.”

Strassheim dedicated time over the summer in Houston in training to operate the chamber which is paying off in research on campus during the school year.

“Just having that background is important, because this piece of equipment is so crucial to our lab,” Strassheim says. “Being in research, and learning how to utilize this equipment is so important as I think about the future. This collaboration, and gaining experience in the lab, is going to help better me as an applicant to grad school and as a researcher someday. I think wherever I go, I’ll look back and think, ‘my undergrad research is where it all started.’ So, we’re incredibly grateful to the Honors College for supplying us with these tools.”

Experiences like those shared by Tremble and Strassheim are examples of why Baylor invests in undergraduate research, and prioritizes opportunities in research for students now and in the future.

“The Greathouse-Abel collaboration is a fantastic manifestation of shared Christian calling,” Henry says. “When I think of Drs. Abel and Greathouse, I see how their faith is integrated with their work and am excited that they are training our students in light of a well-formed vocation. I look forward to finding other innovative ways for students to engage in research and work with our faculty members, and to providing opportunities that lay a solid foundation for fulfilling lives of service, leadership, and contribution.”

In December, Baylor became one of just 39 private universities recognized as a R1 research institution, cross-disciplinary partnerships such as these model Baylor's commitment to providing engaging research opportunities to students across campus that drive future discovery and achievement.
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