Rising junior Amy Spens’ research involves objects so mundane you’re probably touching one right now — yet each hosts a whole microscopic world that most of us will never see. Spens is exploring the microbial jungle found on computer mice in a summer research project with Assistant Professor of Biology Vladimir Douhovnikoff.
To conduct her research Spens is analyzing 400 microbe samples that Douhovnikoff collected over the course of a year from Simmons College library computer mice during his former teaching position there. For each sample, Spens extracts microbial genetic material and distributes it between 32 different small wells that each detect a different type of bacteria. When that type is present, the sample glows.
Without human contact, the surfaces would contain no bacteria at all, so her research investigates the direct impact of human practices on microbial transmission between inanimate surfaces and the environment at large. “It becomes a question of public health and culture,” Spens explained.
Although Spens has taken biology and ecology classes with Douhovnikoff, she had never studied microbes before this summer. “I’ve had to do a lot of background reading,” she said. One topic she’s learned about is the impact of college-aged students’ hand-washing habits on inanimate surfaces. “That is, of course, extremely relevant to my everyday life,” she said with a laugh.
Compared to a classroom setting, the summer lab experience has been challenging but rewarding. The research provides a valuable opportunity for a two-way exchange of ideas and information with a professor, though its open-endedness does make it “harder to know if you have completed something,” Spens said. She is excited by the project’s innovative nature: while many of the articles she has read describe snapshots of microbial landscapes, she hasn’t found any other papers looking at how specific microbes interact over the course of a full year.
Spens hopes to continue her research, currently funded by a fellowship from the Maine Space Grant Consortium (with which Bowdoin is affiliated), into the coming academic year — potentially turning it into either an independent study, an honors project or a “jumping off point for a different honors project.” She is also eager to use this experience to explore career options.
“I wanted to get some lab experience to see if I was cut out for it,” says Spens, who is considering becoming a field biologist, anthropologist or primatologist. Since she enjoys working outdoors — in fact, she is also holding down a farm job this summer — Spens isn’t sure she would want to make lab work her primary focus. But so far the lab has been a positive experience. “It gets to be five o’clock and I don’t know where the time went, which I never expected,” she said.