They've Got to Know 'Why?' Judson College Provides a Fertile Environment for Scientific Curiosity

Article excerpt

Byline: Uma Shyamala Dixit Daily Herald Correspondent

A local institution where important work is being done in biology, chemistry and learning disabilities - what is Elgin's Judson College?

The answer may come as a pleasant surprise.

Traditionally, undergraduate schools such as Judson attract faculty members who are called solely to teach. There may be little or no emphasis on research, and the pressure to "publish or perish," a staple feature of most schools with graduate programs, is mostly absent.

But three faculty members at the Christian liberal arts college, spurred by their passion for science and a drive to help humanity, have found the college's environment to be extremely hospitable when it comes to giving wing to their scientific curiosities.

One has sent experiments up on NASA shuttles and to the Russian space station Mir. Another is a noted speaker on the brain who will be featured in a PBS television documentary. The other is collaborating with researchers internationally to help people in developing countries.

Antibiotics in space?

Betty Juergensmeyer, professor of biology and a member of the faculty for the past 33 years, focuses on whether bacteria become more resistant to antibiotics in space.

The issue had not been addressed since the early 1970s, and Juergensmeyer, who holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was among the first researchers to pick up the threads again in 1994.

Juergensmeyer collaborates in her research with her daughter, Margaret Juergensmeyer, a biologist at the Illinois Technical Research Institute.

The duo has sent five experiments into space. Three went up in NASA space shuttles, while two went up to Mir.

According to Juergensmeyer, antibiotics that work on the ground may not be as effective in space because, for a variety of reasons, bacteria in space undergo changes.

These may involve, for example, a thickening of cell walls.

Such changes may cause bacteria to become more resistant to antibiotics, which complicates matters for astronauts, whose immune systems are weakened to begin with for the duration that they are in space.

The aim, in the long run, is to develop antibiotics that can effectively treat illnesses suffered by space crews.

"The research is important firstly because crew members are spending more and more time in space," Juergensmeyer said.

"Secondly, space stations are increasingly being manned by crew which is international in character, and crew members face a higher risk of coming down with illnesses and infection they may not have been exposed to before."

Juergensmeyer is working on a research project -funded by a grant from NASA - to look at how ground simulations of vibrations in space can affect bacterial growth and antibiotic resistance. Vibrations in space can be caused by shuttle antennae, running motors and astronaut movements.

Juergensmeyer recently also served on a peer-review panel for NASA grant proposals.

Her research agenda includes addressing the actual reason behind bacterial change. Is it due to shuttle vibrations, or is it due to zero gravity?

"We have applied for a research grant from NASA and have budgeted money for a Micro-Array, an expensive, state-of-the-art machine which allows for thousands of antibiotic tests to be run simultaneously on bacteria. It will save us a lot of time," she said.

Juergensmeyer puts it very simply.

"I love to teach at Judson, and my motivation comes from the fact that I cannot teach science well if I don't practice it myself."

The velvet bean

Rolf Myhrman, professor of chemistry at Judson for the past 29 years, talked of a conversation he once had with Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution.

The green revolution is the name for the jump in agricultural productivity due to the use of high-yield varieties of grains, pesticides, and improved management techniques. …