“This instrument allows us to provide students the challenge of dealing with complex systems, math, bioinformatics and a multi-level approach to studying organisms. Sometimes as early as their sophomore year, undergraduates will be doing basically graduate-level work.”
With a new liquid chromatography mass spectrometer and $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), biological sciences Professor Lars Tomanek and his team of Cal Poly undergraduates are working on one of NSF’s 10 Big Idea: understanding the rules of life. The team is studying how food availability affects intertidal mussels’ heat tolerance. With oceans warming due to climate change, the students’ results could provide key information on the resiliency of California intertidal ecosystems.
A team of 10 undergraduates worked around the clock for a week at Cal Poly Pier to collect thousands of data points on intertidal mussels at the cellular, tissue and organismal levels. This highly complex experiment is one of the first to explore what’s happening at multiple levels within an organism at the same time.
Tomanek, who negotiated a $300,000 discount on the instrument, couldn't be more impressed with the students’ work.
“Our collaborator from UC Davis was in awe of our undergraduate students who sampled data at four different levels of biological organization for over five days, day and night. Their commitment was just amazing,” he said. “Undergraduate researchers make it possible to run this incredibly advanced experiment. Graduate students could probably not make the intense time commitment.”
The students have submitted five abstracts to the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, which took place in San Francisco January 2018.
The liquid chromatography mass spectrometer will be a game changer when it comes to analyzing all the tissue samples the students collected. With access to this cutting-edge instrument, which has much higher resolution than any mass spec Cal Poly currently owns, researchers across the university will be able to analyze thousands instead of hundreds of proteins in each snapshot.
“This instrument allows us to provide students the challenge of dealing with complex systems, math, bioinformatics and a multi-level approach to studying organisms. Sometimes as early as their sophomore year, undergraduates will be doing basically graduate-level work.” Tomanek said.
With access to a mass spec more powerful than some top level scientists are using, there’s no telling what these students might discover and how they might make an impact on the state and nation.