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Student receives research fellowship

Meghan Thomassen | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Like most college freshmen, senior Matt Sarna entered Notre Dame three years ago looking for direction in terms of his future career. He found it in laboratory work.

“When I started freshman year, I didn’t know what career trajectory I wanted to take. I was thinking about graduate school, so I thought it would be a really good experience to get involved in research,” Sarna said. “It’s been a really cool way to do science in a hands-on way.”

Taking the initiative freshman year, Sarna, a biological sciences and anthropology major, began researching in professor Joshua Shrout’s applied microbiology research lab. His work culminated when he recently won the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Undergraduate Research Fellowship for his research on bacteria motility.

The oldest and largest biological membership organization with 40,000 members worldwide, ASM chose Sarna and Shrout’s joint application from a pool of 122 applicants. The pair will receive up to $4,000, as well as funds to travel to Denver in May to present their research. Their project sought to discover the genetic factors behind the regulation of bacterial swarm motility.

“I was actually able to publish a model of bacterial growth I worked on with a graduate student last summer,” Sarna said. “Now my current project is to figure out the underlying genetic molecular mechanisms that describe our growth model.”

Shrout said the bacterium he and Sarna researched is found everywhere in the environment and sometimes causes infections in human tissues such as lung, intestine and skin cells.

“Among the things that we don’t understand is how it sticks to surfaces and how it knows what kind of surface its on,” Shrout said. “We use motility, how it moves around, as a way to study its behavior. [In] Matt’s project, we look at bacteria that move more [and] how bacteria know about things about surfaces.”

Spending eight to 10 hours in the lab each week helped Sarna decide which career route he wanted to take.

“I wanted to have a more interpersonal career, more hands on work with other people,” he said. “I still enjoy the research process, so I’ll probably pursue that in medical school as well.”

Shrout has been a valuable mentor throughout Sarna’s research.

“He’s a cool guy, really down to earth. He really cares about our project and that I really understand the work I’m doing,” Sarna said. “He’s all about the hands-on.”

Shrout, a joint civil engineering and biology professor, said Sarna excels beyond the typical student standard in his enthusiasm and dedication.

“I am so pleased and proud of Matt,” he said. “He asks a lot of questions that have allowed him to make progress really quickly from helping people in my lab to doing his own project.”

Rather than attending office hours to ask questions, Shrout said Sarna stops by his office frequently to chat about the project.

“He’s so competent, he really operates much more like one of my graduate student researchers,” he said. “He has challenged himself to become familiar with the literature and other work that relates to the research that he’s doing and that allows him to move forward rather than repeat work that people have already done.”