Aquinas Biology Students Participate in Unique Crowdsourcing Research

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By Kelli Gimore

Aquinas professors Jennifer Hess, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and Rob Peters, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, are well aware of the antibiotic crisis happening around the world. Which is why, when Dr. Hess heard about the Small World Initiative (SWI) — an innovate program that encourages students to pursue careers in science while addressing the worldwide health treats of superbugs and diminishing effective antibiotics — she knew Aquinas had to participate.

“One thing I really enjoyed about this course is the fact that our research in our lab was able to contribute to society in some way. Rather than just learning the material, we were able to apply our knowledge in order to attempt to make the medical world more efficient in treatments.”

“It was exciting for me to be working toward a goal that is so vital in the world of antibiotic resistance. I knew that it wasn’t likely that my lab partner and I would find a new antibiotic, but the information that everyone recorded was still valuable to researchers working through the Small World Initiative.”

“I would definitely encourage others to take this course. Rarely in an introductory lab do you learn and help advance critical research that could have worldwide consequences.”

“SWI actually offered one of the most interactive and insightful experiments I have ever conducted in a laboratory setting!”


The Small World Initiative crowdsources antibiotic discovery by collating the research results of undergraduates who participate in the soil-study program. Hess first became aware of the SWI consortium after attending the 2016 Project Kaleidoscope STEM Leadership Institute, where participants shared their SWI experiences with her. From there, she researched the program and discovered Aquinas met the SWI qualification requirements, so she applied.

Aquinas joined Eastern Michigan University as the second program in Michigan to be accepted into the consortium. Following Aquinas' acceptance, Hess' colleague Peters was excited about the new opportunity and attended fast-tracked curriculum training. He learned tips for instituting the curriculum, and together he and Hess worked to implement the program at Aquinas. The first course launched during the fall semester of 2017, giving first-year biology students the opportunity to experience scientific research that has a real impact in the medical field.

"The pont of the curriculum is that students are learning and gaining new knowledge all the time. We don't remotely know what they are going to find, and they don't enther. That's pretty excitinig" Hess said.


SWI fits perfectly into the Aquinas science department’s goal of incorporating more research into courses. Students enrolled in SWI courses research soil microorganisms in hopes of discovering new antibiotics. Through the exploration of the biological and chemical variety of local soil environments, students add their research to the collective results from participants around the world with the goal of increasing the chances of identifying potential sources of new drugs.

“For science in general, this initiative is an awesome thing,” Peters said. “It’s giving tons of young science students first-hand research experience early in their careers. While the next big discovery may or may not be made in class, it’s more likely one of the students will become infatuated with this problem and the power of antibiotic discovery and build a career based on that, going forth and making important contributions in the field.”

Making research accessible to students with no prior experience is one of the most important program aspects for Hess. In response to her course experience, freshman Gina Nowland accepted a summer research opportunity with Hess within the Aquinas College Biology and Health Sciences Department, making her the first freshman to participate.


In addition to the amazing opportunities, SWI curriculum offers students, participating in the program is an area of distinction for Aquinas.

“The importance of having research-based curriculum is recognized widely in education communities and research communities,” Peters said. “SWI is helping us get the research focus into our first-year class. It’s an important and exciting part of our curriculum that will really benefit our students.”

Hess agrees, stating that this program is an incentive for students to attend Aquinas: “The techniques and concepts taught through the SWI curriculum are things that students can engage with right out of high school, or even in high school, opening the doors for dual enrollment opportunities.” Thanks to Hess and Peters, the SWI consortium sets Aquinas apart by incorporating an impactful research experience for students. Pairing SWI curriculum with the $32 million science building renovation and expansion, Aquinas students will be well equipped to enter a high-demand STEM workforce. Needless to say, the future is bright for Aquinas’ science departments and their graduates.