Collaboration is expected in scientific research. So when Laura Runyen-Janecky, associate professor of biology, traveled to Trinidad, Jamaica, Panama, and Cuba as part of the University of Richmond’s 2011 Faculty Seminar Abroad, she was on the lookout for new research partners.
Soon after Runyen-Janecky returned to Richmond, Paul Brown, a microbiologist at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica, contacted her with several student projects and plans were soon set in to motion. For seven weeks this spring and summer, she hosted Stacy Stephenson, a UWI doctoral student evaluating an E. coli strain known for causing urinary tract infections.
“I have a very broad interest in ways that you can apply genetic approaches and genetic techniques and genetic lenses to microbiology,” Runyen-Janecky says. “Stacy’s project rose to the top as a way that would allow me to use the tools that I have in my lab to help Stacy answer the questions she’s interested in.”
The experience of working in Runyen-Janecky’s lab gave Stephenson a new perspective on scientific research. Research in Jamaica relies heavily on samples from real patients and demands a direct medical application, such as determining to which antibiotics are bacteria resistant . At Richmond, however, Stephenson could step back a layer and investigate what happens to make bacteria antibiotic-resistant.
“At UWI, most of the techniques that we utilize were amplifying the DNA,” Stephenson says. “But here it’s the mechanisms that we’re looking at, and how it [a bacterial gene] carries out a particular disease. If we know the mechanisms by which this gene carries out its pathogenicity, if we can attack this particular gene within the DNA, if we cut off the expression of this gene, we’re hoping that the medical industry would be able to develop a new drug.”
While Stephenson’s research alone provided teaching opportunities for the undergraduate researchers in Runyen-Janecky’s lab, the differences in techniques and available resources also gave students a new outlook on cross-cultural research partnerships.
“There was an underlying cultural component that I was very cognizant of, probably because of the Faculty Seminar Abroad,” Runyen-Janecky says. “We didn’t just look at the Caribbean from our own lens. I wanted my undergraduate research students here to see science through the lens that Stacy sees it. In some ways, she’s having an experience that’s very similar to what they do, but in some ways it’s very different as governments might be focused on different types of science. I wanted my students to see that Stacy brings this clinical bent to her research.”
Her students agreed they had a lot to learn, particularly when it comes to the accessibility of resources in different countries.
“It really stuck out to me when Stacy mentioned how fast things come when we order them here compared to her home,” says Caitlin Smith, ’12. “When we order DNA primers at UR, we can get them the next day. But at Stacy’s university, it could take weeks for something to come in, which obviously makes research projects move slower. It makes you stop and take a moment to appreciate where you are and what you’re doing.”
Another student, Will Farmer, ’14, had visited Jamaica as a child, but Stephenson’s visit shed new light on the country. “Talking to Stacy makes me want to go back and see it through her eyes, rather than as a tourist. Allowing Stacy to come here builds a trusting relationship with Jamaica — a network connection that can be used in the future.”