Perspectives Online

Creating Knowledge - A student’s summer lab experience leads to four years of mentored participation in molecular biology research — and a strong foundation for future accomplishment.

Student Ben Carr and Dr. Jon Olson work in a darkroom at Olson's microbiology lab. Photo by Becky Kirkland

Before Ben Carr officially became a student in N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he had begun research that could have significant implications for human health.

During the summer before his freshman year, Carr spent six weeks cloning genes in Dr. Jon Olson’s microbiology lab. He had been awarded the opportunity through RISE (Reaching Incoming Student Enrichment), a competitive program for high school graduates that is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He chose Olson’s lab because he wanted to major in microbiology.

Studying a pathogen which grows in chickens and causes food poisoning, student Ben Carr (left) and Dr. Jon Olson (right) hope to shed light on the way the bacteria live and move between hosts.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
Those six weeks led to nearly four years of an evolving research program and a rewarding mentor-student relationship. “RISE was a great program,” Carr says. “I learned how to do cloning and molecular genetics, and I was able to stay in the lab and build on that once I got to N.C. State.”

Olson, CALS associate professor of microbiology, remembers Carr from that summer lab as an enthusiastic but quiet student, trying to find his niche. He also recognized Carr’s zeal for research and potential as a long-term student in his lab.

“Six weeks is no time in a scientific lab, but Ben was very disappointed in what he got done during those weeks,” Olson says. “Although he did quite a bit of cloning, which is a feat in itself, he didn’t get a mutant, and so I think he felt like his project wasn’t complete. I remember telling him that he got a lot accomplished.”

When Carr joined Olson’s lab, Olson was studying Campylobacter jejuni. This pathogen, which grows in chickens, causes food poisoning.

“We knew that Campylobacter produced an enzyme that makes a signaling molecule,” Olson says. “This molecule is a signal between bacteria; it’s a way bacteria talk to each other. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of research on it, so we wanted to find out what that gene did and why these bacteria wanted to talk to each other.”

One of the major components of Carr’s work was quorum sensing in C. jejuni. Olson explains, “We figured what we’ll do first is target this gene for mutagenesis, and if we get a mutant in the gene, then the bacteria won’t be able to talk to each other, and we’ll be able to find out what it is that they’re doing when they’re talking to each other.

“Whenever you’re working on an organism like this, making a mutant is a big deal,” Olson says. “It also can be boring, working in a lab, waiting for results. So for the second part of Ben’s project, we had a feeling that one of the things that the molecule was signaling the bacteria to do was make what’s called a biofilm, which is a multicellular colony. There are advantages for bacteria to live in a community rather than as free-living organisms.”

Scientists had also begun to notice at the time that C. jejuni does form these biofilms, Olson says. “At the time we had no experience at all with biofilms. This was a great project for Ben to do every day while waiting for mutant to come. But it was challenging.”

Carr agrees but also says it was exciting to produce results. “We developed a viable method … that was a modification of a method that other scientists were using for other bacteria.”

He’s presented his research several times over the course of his undergraduate study, and in his junior and senior years, he won research award grants from the university’s Undergraduate Research Office.

As a senior honors student, Carr is still working on biofilms. “We want to be able to track bacteria as it goes through biofilm stages,” he says. “It’s a pretty cool project.”

The project has evolved over time, Olson says, and has implications for human health.

“Seventy to eighty percent of chickens will become infected with Campylobacter in their lives,” he says. “We think it’s through their drinking water. But Campylobacter doesn’t survive in water, so we think it is finding biofilms to survive in which help it to be a lot more resistant to external stresses.

“Our idea, which hasn’t been proven yet, is that when Campylobacter is not in a host, it’s going to live in a biofilm,” he adds. “And hopefully we’ll be able to track Campylobacter through some biofilms that we’ve either created with bacteria that we know or that we’ve gone out and collected in areas around poultry farms. We’d like to show that biofilm is very important for the transmission of the bacteria between these intermediate hosts. So if we can keep it out of chickens, for instance, then we might be able to have a big effect on human health.”

So, how does it feel to be part of such important research as an undergraduate?

“When I first came to the university I had never done research before so I wasn’t familiar with the whole process of scientific inquiry,” Carr says. “The phrase researchers use is ‘creating knowledge.’ You’re on the cutting edge of what people know, so you’ve got to look at what people know and where the gaps are, then figure out how to formulate those into research questions and come up with procedures that answer those questions. I learned how do to it through my work in this lab.”

It’s a mantra he’s lived by in his undergraduate experience and one he’ll take with him into his professional career.

Carr, who has shadowed physicians at Duke Raleigh Hospital, is applying to medical school in hopes of becoming a surgeon.

“Ben is a true member of this lab,” Olson says. “He’s on the lab meeting schedule. He presents to the whole group and they have to understand what he’s done. Not everybody who comes through the lab reaches that status.”

What did Olson take away from his experience with Carr? “There’s a lot of satisfaction in seeing somebody grow into a competent, accomplished researcher,” Olson says. “We’ve got a project that will certainly outlive Ben. He’s helped us develop a good foundation. The real hope is to create some knowledge here that’s going to improve human health."