Recently, Purdue held its first virtual Undergraduate Research Conference. Vignesh Nathan, a senior in biology, placed 1st among College of Science posters. He presented his project titled, “Interactions of Various Probiotic Preparation with Zearalenone,” along with his research mentors Drs. Arun K. Bhunia and Rishi Drolia.
Vignesh got his start in undergraduate research his second semester of sophomore year. During a visit at a job fair, Vignesh talked to students and recruiters where they told him research would allow him to build his experience outside of coursework. “I was always interested in pathogenic interactions and how viruses and bacteria can infect various cells,” he said. Anything with microbiology, virology, and immunology interested him but he did not have a clear path in mind. His initial search led him to the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology, and Infectious Diseases (PI4D) in Purdue’s Discovery Park. Eventually, he found Dr. Arun K. Bhunia’s webpage detailing his interest in the pathogenesis of Listeria monocytogenes. After emailing him, he was referred to Dr. Rishi Drolia whose lab he joined in summer 2019 volunteering to learn general techniques before enrolling for credit the following semesters. Vignesh began this project after reading multiple literature pieces on the topic and familiarizing himself with the techniques required to complete the experiment.
This research project involved the testing of several bacterial probiotics from BioMatrix International to see if the probiotics could bind Zearalenone, thus making the compound inactive by the time the toxin was ingested by an animal. Zearalenone is a mycotoxin which is a metabolite produced by the fungal species Fusarium when stressed. The compound is similar in structure to estradiol and binds estrogen receptors. The toxin is common in various grains which are used for agricultural feedstuffs. When swine are exposed to Zearalenone, they undergo physiological changes resulting in estrogenic disorders. The process results in reduced livestock and fiscal losses. Therefore, there needs to be a process to mitigate the adverse outcomes associated with Zearalenone. They achieved this through incubating the probiotics with industry levels of Zearalenone and determining how much unbound Zearalenone was left in the sample. “I believe the research being conducted is paramount to the public as humans consume livestock as a source of food,” Vignesh said. The feed contamination can result in decreased livestock production which results in less food for human consumption. Therefore, an effort must be made to control the toxin within rising populations and increased food consumption. “A case can be made for overall animal welfare as affected swine experience unwanted symptoms.”
“I had never presented a poster presentation until this year,” Vignesh said. Vignesh’s first poster presentation was a month prior to the Undergraduate Research Conference at the 2020 Spring Undergraduate Research Conference at the Health and Disease: Science, Technology, Culture and Policy Research Poster Session which helped him gain the confidence to continue presenting. “Although I wish the conference were in person, I was glad that the Office of Undergraduate Research converted the conference to a virtual format to gain more experience.” Vignesh said that the resources on the website were immensely helpful and the upload and viewing process was very user-friendly. “Overall, I was amazed at how committed the Office was to allow all the students to showcase their hard work and the dedication to make the virtual conference a learning moment.”
Vignesh said that he has learned through undergraduate research that perseverance is key. Setting up and running experiments is not going to happen every day in a lab. Reading up on current literature and techniques that will help your project run more efficiently will take just as much time, too. “Sometimes, you do not get the results that you were anticipating but do not give up; instead, learn from your mistakes and troubleshoot.” Vignesh added that “my first day in research, I caught a piece of lab equipment on fire with a Bunsen burner and embarrassed myself. I could have easily moved to a different lab and never show my face again, but I came in the next day ready to learn from my mistake!”
When asked what advice he would give to students interested in undergraduate research, Vignesh said that there is no harm in emailing a professor you are interested in working with and asking to meet. When you receive a response, you will most likely have a chance to meet the other researchers in the lab. Getting to know the individuals in the lab is important because you will see them often and form friendships. “As an extrovert, I like to joke around while doing work and I was lucky to find a lab which had outgoing people who were extremely friendly.”
Congratulations on the work you have completed, Vignesh!