Posted: December 21, 2016

College of Ag Sciences Undergraduates reap the benefits of hands-on learning in faculty labs.


The pair of cookies looked the same--both were slightly crunchy, yet pillowy soft in the middle, and studded with chunks of chocolate. They even tasted the same--scrumptious! But there was one important difference between the two desserts. One had at its base enriched all-purpose white flour; the other was made from 75 percent white flour and 25 percent cricket flour. Yes, you read that correctly--cricket flour, as in flour made from the ground-up bodies of the very same insects that sing us to sleep in the summer.

Scott Breen '16 Food Sci, graduate student in the Department of Food Science, thinks cricket flour and other insect-based ingredients could be a solution to the problem of food security.

"As the global population approaches an estimated 9 billion people in 2040, alternative food sources will be needed to feed this population," said Breen. "Certain edible insect species are nutrient dense with high levels of fat, protein, and minerals, and represent an alternative food source for humans. Insects also have a number of benefits in terms of sustainability over traditional livestock; they take up less space, can be raised on organic waste, and have a higher reproduction rate. However, negative consumer acceptance of insect eating in North America is a large potential barrier in their use as a direct food source."

During his senior year, Breen conducted research with Alyssa Chilton, staff sensory scientist in the Department of Food Science. The goal of the project was to characterize consumer opinions and reactions toward entomophagy--the practice of insect eating.

Breen was one 16 students to participate in a research project in a faculty member's lab in the College of Agricultural Sciences last spring. "These activities," said Tracy Hoover, associate dean for undergraduate education, "are among the most important things an undergraduate student can do to prepare for the modern-day workforce."

"Working on my own research project has been the most valuable learning experience I have had as a Penn State student." --Scott Breen

According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, "To succeed in our new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past."

Unlike in days gone by when job seekers had only to compete with other locals for employment, today's graduates must distinguish themselves among a global pool of candidates. The stakes are high. The responsibility is great. That's why the College of Agricultural Sciences provides students with opportunities to participate in research to help ensure that they can secure the best paying, most satisfying jobs in the market.

"Participating in research not only helps students learn about a particular scientific topic, it also helps them develop confidence, learn proper work etiquette and responsiveness to deadlines, work in teams, interact with supervisors and colleagues, and articulately explain what they are doing to others both verbally and in writing," said Hoover. "The experience helps them make the transition to the adult workplace."

And that's not all. Participating in the process of science introduces students to a way of thinking, a way of making decisions based on evidence rather than emotions, noted Richard Rateau, director of the Center for Experiential Learning and Career Services in the college. So even students who end up choosing non-scientific career paths--say in agribusiness or agricultural communications--develop a foundation in critical thinking, he said.

Finally, undergraduates who do research have an opportunity to learn about different fields of study and what might be a good fit for them moving forward. "Undergraduate research gives students an opportunity to explore," said Rateau, whose job includes communicating about the opportunities available and encouraging students to consider participating in undergraduate research. "Additionally, the research gives the student additional information on career options."

Indeed, undergraduate students profit in many ways from their participation in research, but they aren't the only ones who benefit. With the right students, faculty members can receive valuable assistance in the lab, which not only lessens their workload but also opens up new avenues of investigation that they previously may not have had time or staff to pursue.

In the spring of 2015, the college issued a survey to which 68 percent of graduating students responded. Thirty-eight percent of those respondents said they participated in a supervised research project during their time at Penn State.

To assist students and faculty members in their collaborations, the college offers around $100,000 per year in grant funding. Each year, the college issues a call for proposals. Students with winning proposals--ranging from around 15 to 45 students per year--can receive $2,000 for the fall and spring semesters and $3,000 for the summer. The funds can be used for wages, research supplies, and/or travel to field sites.

"We've tried to develop the call for proposals so it's similar to what people would have to respond to for any grant funding they might go after down the road," said Hoover. "So students start to get an idea of what they have to put into a proposal and what are some of the outcomes."

In return for receiving grants, students are asked to present their research in the form of a poster at the Gamma Sigma Delta Research Expo, which takes place each year in the spring. "It's a great experience for students," said Hoover. "They have to be able to explain the value of the work they did to somebody without a background in poultry or entomology, etc." Hoover noted that in 2016 for the first time, the research expo had more undergraduate student posters than graduate student posters.

In addition to the Gamma Sigma Delta Research Expo, students often present their research at national conferences. To help these students defray travel costs, the college and University will match department offerings up to $300, so a student can secure up to $900 to travel to a professional meeting.

Breen, who received $750 from the college's Mark and Nancy Speizer Undergraduate Research Scholarship for the spring 2016 semester, noted that his research was a valuable learning experience. "It taught me the entire research process, from writing a grant and receiving funding to designing an experiment, carrying it out, and communicating the results," he said.

Breen's project examined 270 study participants' attitudes toward and liking of insects as a food ingredient. In the project, he and Alyssa Chilton created chocolate chip cookies with regular whole-wheat flour and cookies made with a 25 percent cricket-flour substitution.

They divided the participants into three groups: a pre-tasting condition, a post-tasting condition, and a no-information condition. In the pre-tasting condition, panelists first read a paragraph of information about the environmental and nutritional benefits of insect consumption and were informed whether or not the cookie contained cricket flour before receiving or tasting it and before being asked to make their liking ratings. In the post-tasting condition, panelists first tried the samples, then read the information paragraph and were told which sample contained cricket flour. After trying the product and reading the information, they then made their liking ratings. In the no-information condition, panelists were not given the paragraph of information to read and were not told which cookie contained cricket flour.

"All of the participants were informed at the beginning of the study that the samples contained ingredients made with insects, but not necessarily which samples contained insects, depending on the group they were in," said Breen. "We also screened participants before the study, and anyone who was opposed to eating cricket flour was not invited to participate."

According to Breen, the team observed a variety of reactions from the participants toward the cricket-flour cookies, but overall the response was positive. "I tasted the cookies myself and did not think there was much of a difference between them," said Breen. "The cookies created with insects were just as good as the control cookies!"

Overall, the study participants felt the same way--they did not prefer one cookie over the other. "These data suggest continued work and research into entomophagy in North American participants is warranted," said Breen.

Although Breen's research project is unique, his role as an undergraduate researcher in the college isn't. Each year, dozens of students receive laboratory training alongside faculty members in the college. They learn to generate ideas; write persuasive grant proposals; carry out organized, repeatable experiments; write up their results, sometimes even contributing to peer-reviewed journal publications; and present their results orally.

Basically, they experience the full gamut of activities entailed in the job of a professional scientist. And receiving the skills as an undergraduate makes the students even more likely to succeed as future scientists. According to Hoover, research experience at the undergraduate level enhances a student's ability to make that first step toward becoming a scientist--being accepted to a high-quality graduate program.

"We've heard from faculty members whose students have applied for both professional and graduate school that this was an important component of their successful admission or awarding of an assistantship as they went on for their education beyond their bachelor's degree," she said.

The skills students learn as a result of their participation in research are extensive. So is the breadth of research topics they can explore in the college. From animal science to biomedical science to food science, students have a vast palette of offerings from which to choose. But the real benefit is the close working relationship with a faculty member.

"So much of learning is simply through osmosis, working alongside a faculty member," said Hoover. "Many skills can't really be explicitly taught. Rather, they are absorbed and acquired as a result of exposure. The college places a high value on this type of education, and we do our best to support it."

Pregnancy Failure in Cattle

Early loss of embryos among pregnant cows is a major economic cost to dairy producers.

"This experience exposed me to neonatal-perinatal medicine and the basic science research that is the groundwork for today's advancements in clinical medicine."--Michelle Hartzell

Michelle Hartzell '16 Animal Sci worked with Troy Ott, professor of reproductive physiology and associate director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, to study cellular communication during the early embryonic period with the goal of helping to reduce rates of embryonic mortality in dairy cattle and improve fertility on dairy farms.

"The role of the immune system in modulating pregnancy is highly relevant to the issue of embryonic loss," said Hartzell.

A Schreyer Honor's College student, Hartzell investigated the role of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR)--an immune cell pathway that generates anti-inflammatory immune cells during pregnancy and suppresses the proliferation of pro-inflammatory cells--in dairy cattle pregnancy.

"Reaction of the maternal immune system to the embryo via pro-inflammatory immune cells and molecules could contribute to a portion of embryonic losses in dairy cattle," said Hartzell. "The goal of my research was to determine if AHR was more abundant within the uterus of pregnant dairy heifers and to study the effect of an AHR-activating molecule on bovine immune cell growth."

Hartzell, who grew up working on her family's dairy farm, noted that nutritional management applications of pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory agents currently are viewed as viable approaches to improving fertility on dairy farms. "Dairy cattle rations can be formulated to include certain additives that have pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory properties," she said. "It may be advantageous to formulate dairy cattle rations with anti-inflammatory ingredients during pregnancy to modify the status of uterine immune cells to promote successful establishment of pregnancy."

Hartzell received funding to support her research with three undergraduate research grants from the college. She presented her work at the 2015 American Dairy Science Association national meeting and the 2016 Northeast Student Affiliate meetings and placed third and second, respectively, in the meetings' student poster awards.

"My research experience was a perfect fit for my interests in dairy cattle, immunology, and physiology, and I will be attending medical school in 2017," said Hartzell. "The research experience and lab skills I gained in Dr. Ott's lab opened up the opportunity for an invaluable internship opportunity in pediatric medical research at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. This experience allowed me to gain exposure to neonatal-perinatal medicine and to become involved in basic science research that lays the groundwork for today's advancements in clinical medicine."

More Than a Gut Feeling

Nicole Hume, a senior majoring in veterinary and biomedical sciences, is investigating the gut microbiome, which involves all of the microorganisms that populate the gastrointestinal tract, with a goal of teasing apart the processes that lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

It is exciting to take the knowledge I have learned in class and apply it to my own project." --Nicole Hume

According to Hume, studies have found that ceramides--lipids that are important for cell structure, signaling, and metabolism--are associated with cellular responses such as oxidative stress and inflammation. An increase in ceramides has been linked to the pathology of NAFLD. "Completing this study will provide a greater understanding of the link between the manipulation of the gut microbiota and its effect on the metabolic profile, ultimately providing greater insight on the progression and future treatment of NAFLD," said Hume, who is working with Andrew Patterson, associate professor of molecular toxicology.

Specifically, Hume is interested in examining ceramide levels in germ-free mice--mice raised so that they do not acquire any microorganisms--and conventional mice--mice raised under normal circumstances. "I hypothesize that gut microbiota promote ceramide synthesis in the intestine and liver," she said.

Hume, who just started her research in the spring, said she already has learned much about how to use the various machines in the metabolomics facility and how to conduct scientific techniques related to the project. "It is exciting to finally take the knowledge I have learned in class and apply it to my own project," she said.

Hume noted that she plans to attend pharmacy school after graduating from Penn State. "I am very interested in the drug development process, and research like this is necessary in order to find potential drug targets in the treatment of diseases like NAFLD," she said.

--Sara LaJeunesse