Lab

Students use samples from streams in the Valley to understand where salmonella outbreaks might come from.

JMU students are looking to understand the Harrisonburg community in a unique way — by researching salmonella. 

Associate professor in biology James Herrick offers a class at JMU that involves taking samples of bacteria from streams in the Shenandoah Valley. Herrick said the research helps the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) figure out where an outbreak of salmonella might have come from. 

Students in Biology 346 take samples from streams in the Shenandoah Valley that are used for research by the FDA to advance their studies about genomics and microbiology. The bacteria is sent to the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS), where it’s cultured and sent back to the students for them to analyze the DNA sequences and study genomics. 

This class began in January 2018 when two of Herrick’s previous students discovered salmonella located in the streams by taking samples and sending them to the FDA to be sequenced. Herrick, who pitched the idea for the class, said the course was originally funded by Madison Trust, a group of investors and donors that funds faculty and staff projects. 

The class is made up of biology majors, and most of them have a focus in microbiology, Herrick said. 

Herrick highlighted the benefits of the class by referring to it as a CURE  — Course-Based Undergraduate Experience — class. 

“The idea was to give our students the opportunity to work on authentic research that is not from a book, it’s not canned and we don’t know the answer to begin with,” Herrick said. “We don’t know if these organisms are there when we go out to look for them.” 

Herrick said there’s a large amount of feces produced in the four central counties — Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Page — in the Shenandoah Valley because of the area’s use as an agricultural hub. Herrick said the Valley produces “on the order of half a million tons of solid manure” and “a billion gallons of liquid manure per year.” Though this makes the Valley a good place for studying bacteria, Herrick said the chances of people living here contracting salmonella and other bacteria are higher. 

Herrick said that although he and the students work with the FDA, the state lab in Richmond does a large amount of work for this class — specifically, most of the DNA sequencing. 

Reid Christenson, a senior biology major, is a teaching assistant for the class; Christenson took the class in the fall of 2020. Christenson said he was drawn to taking the class because the students are able to use their research questions and go in their own direction for their final presentation about their particular sample. Many of the students, Christenson said, partner in research with Herrick because his lab works so closely with the class. 

“A lot of classes don’t give you that opportunity,” Christenson said. “They have a set curriculum, and you have to follow that to a certain extent.”  

Christenson said the students have a wet lab notebook that’s used for keeping track of their samples and a notebook for genomic testing; the students are graded based on these notebooks, a poster, a presentation and weekly quizzes.

Mallory Cunningham, a senior biotechnology major, is also a teaching assistant for the class and said most of the work she’s doing for Herrick’s class relates closely to her career path. That gives her a “heightened level of excitement for it,” she said. Cunningham was also part of Herrick’s research lab prior to taking his class. 

The students are currently about to get their sequences back from the DCLS and will continue to study genomics. 

“It’s a really cool class because for a lot of students, it’s their first exposure to undergraduate research,” Christenson said. 

Contact Adaire Adams at adams5al@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.