Monkeys and Microbes Studied in Ithaca College's New Biosafety Lab
From howler monkeys to hardy microbes, Ithaca College students and faculty are investigating diverse topics all in one place thanks to a new on-campus biosafety laboratory. Created through a partnership between the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance and the School of Humanities and Sciences, the new lab is affording students and faculty the opportunity to engage in high-level research in a safe, state-of-the-art environment.
The new biosafety lab is located in the Center for Health Sciences.
The laboratory, located in the Center for Health Sciences, is designated “Biological Safety Level-2,” a designation that covers laboratories that work with agents associated with human diseases that pose a moderate health hazard. Examples of agents typically worked with in a Biological Safety Level-2 laboratory include Staphylococcus aureus (causing skin and invasive infections), Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Escherichia coli (causing gastrointestinal infections).
Biological safety levels (BSL), set by the Centers for Disease Control, are designed to protect laboratory personnel as well as the surrounding environment. These levels, which range from 1-4, are selected based on the agents or organisms that are being researched within a laboratory setting. The new lab is IC’s third designated BSL-2, and the college’s first interschool lab to be designated higher than BSL-1.
The lab was developed through a collaboration between assistant professor Kari Brossard Stoos, from the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education, and assistant professor Lisa Corewyn, from the Department of Anthropology.
“This lab is truly unique in that it’s an interschool collaboration,” said Corewyn. “It really opens up opportunities for students to learn in a multidisciplinary environment.”
With guidance from Mark Ross, IC’s on-campus environmental safety specialist, and the college’s Institutional Biosafety Committee, Corewyn and Brossard Stoos drafted proposals outlining the design and need for a BSL-2 lab that would enable faculty and students to conduct research they were previously unable to explore on campus due to safety concerns and space limitations.
Maura Benner ’19, a health sciences major with a pre-medicine concentration, was actively involved in helping get the lab up and running. “It's been quite the experience getting to see this process from the beginning,” she said. “I've been assisting in organizing new shipments of supplies, assembling equipment and developing our experimental procedures, and it makes you so invested in the project.”
Benner, who hopes to pursue a career related to pathology, said that lab and research opportunities give students valuable experience. “While textbook knowledge is important, it’s equally essential to put that knowledge into action and become skilled in laboratory techniques,” she said.
Assistant professors Lisa Corewyn and Kari Brossard Stoos.
Students in the lab are currently immersed in behavioral and conservation research of mantled howler monkeys. The research stems from fieldwork conducted by Corewyn and her students, who travel each summer to Costa Rica to study primate behavior and ecology. Students spend the time observing the monkeys and noninvasively collecting fecal samples in the fragmented forest at La Pacifica, a privately owned ranch in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. The samples are then brought back to the new lab for DNA extraction and analyses.
“Our initial analysis found that the howler monkey population at La Pacifica appears to be in decline, and the research coming from the lab will provide a basis for understanding their population genetic structure,” shared Corewyn. “Then we can establish a strategic conservation plan to prevent further declines in this population, and the species more broadly, in the future."
Lauren Hodkinson ’18, who is earning a dual degree in biochemistry and anthropology, accompanied Corewyn to Costa Rica in 2016 and played an integral role in the mantled howler monkey preservation research both in the field and in the lab.
“[The lab] cultivates this unique intellectual space where two different disciplines of science, primate behavior and genetics, are combined to answer some really fascinating anthropological questions,” said Hodkinson.
Brossard Stoos and her students will soon begin research in the new lab to understand the emerging problem of microbial resistance to detergents and disinfectants, which is particularly problematic in athletic and healthcare facilities. Brossard Stoos will also utilize the lab’s resources in a course, Microbiology for Health Sciences. The course includes hands-on learning experiences in basic microbiological techniques, preparing students for graduate programs in allied and public health fields.
“By participating in the research project, students will learn and practice basic microbiological techniques utilized in clinical health care and industry settings,” said Brossard Stoos.
Both Brossard Stoos and Corewyn emphasize that their interschool collaboration has been a highlight of their time at IC. “I think we’ve both learned so much from each other throughout this process, and we are excited about the potential to pursue opportunities to contribute our skillsets towards the development of interdisciplinary collaborative projects,” said Brossard Stoos.
Corewyn echoed that sentiment, adding, “It’s been an incredibly great experience.”