Biology department boasts new high-tech research equipment

Tami McDonald

A protective sash and HEPA filter are among the features of the new biosafety cabinet that Tami McDonald and her students now use. Photo by Ashley de los Reyes ’15.

Fungi, flatworms and research, oh my! A new piece of lab equipment is generating some excited buzz in the basement of Mendel Hall.

The SterilGARD III Advance is a biosafety cabinet that offers an ultra-sterile environment that prevents the organisms being studied from contamination, and also protects the user from air-borne pathogens that can infect humans. The bench’s UV light is used for sterilizing the work space after use.

Because of this ultra-sterile work space, St. Kate’s students and faculty can study organisms that weren’t options before, whether infectious pathogens or slow-growing organisms that require extra care in handling. For Tami McDonald, assistant professor of biology, this means she can study her beloved lichenizing fungi.

“They’re not considered a pathogen at all, but they grow super slowly. It takes up to a year for them to grow,” she explains. “So if you inoculate them on the bench in a lab, the likelihood of fungal spores or bacteria getting onto your specimen [and contaminating it] is really high.”

The sparkling biosafety cabinet in McDonald’s lab space has already seen quite a bit of action in its first week on campus. The bench’s sterilizing light has found another purpose – in studying the effects of UV exposure on cells.

In the introduction to microbiology class, students used the UV light to study regeneration in planarians (or flatworms), an organism that reproduces by splitting in half. Students used different size mesh to control how much UV light was getting to their organisms.

“Working with the flatworm is great, because they are pretty sensitive and you can get a readout rather quickly on whether it can still divide or not divide,” says McDonald. “The students found that even a little bit of UV light is rather damaging.”

Students in St. Kate’s many healthcare programs will benefit from access to the equipment as well, adds McDonald.

“Not only is this an important piece of equipment in microbiology, but this benefits anyone going into the healthcare field in terms of learning the proper sterile technique for handling equipment and lab specimens,” says McDonald.

The equipment was made possible through a generous donor who wishes to remain anonymous. Over the past five years, the same donor has also provided funding for an Aquamate spectrophotometer (for studying aquatic samples), 15 high-tech Leica microscopes and an industrial strength sterilizing dishwasher.

By Sharon Rolenc