A shared passion: SBU professor involves students in unique research opportunities

One of Southwest Baptist University’s newest biology faculty members has a passion for practical research and is sharing that passion with his students, allowing them the opportunity to join him in unique undergraduate research opportunities. This research experience makes SBU biology students some of the most qualified candidates for graduate schools and is also helping them discover their own God-given callings.
 

Dr. Tao Wei, associate professor of biology at SBU, has a passion for research and for helping students learn.

Dr. Tao Wei, associate professor of biology at SBU, has a passion for research and for helping students learn.

Dr. Tao Wei’s extensive ongoing research in microbiology currently focuses primarily on studying biofilms, which are colonies of bacteria that form on biotic or abiotic surfaces, can resist traditional antibiotic treatments and cause chronic infections in the immunocompromised.

Wei says this research is important because the public needs to know about possible side effects of antibiotics involving biofilms. So far, Wei’s research has discovered that some antibiotics can actually increase biofilm formation. Thus, when biofilms form to cause an infection, some antibiotics may actually contribute to making the problem chronic.

Dr. Wei’s extensive research and enthusiasm about biology is impressive, but what matters more is his desire to see his students learn and succeed. At the start of the 2013-14 academic year, Dr. Wei was selected as the Faculty Newcomer of the Year. In his nomination, one student said of Dr. Wei, “I like that he has us think critically about experiments so that we come to conclusions with our own thoughts, rather than spoon feeding us the answers; this helps us develop thinking skills while learning and understanding the information.”
 

Kara Phipps, senior, and Annie Wolfe ’13, work in the biology lab on undergraduate research.

Kara Phipps, senior, and Annie Wolfe ’13, work in the biology lab on undergraduate research.

Wei has recruited several students to help with his ongoing research, giving them the unique opportunity to participate in scientific research at the undergraduate level. Kara Phipps, senior biology major, has long dreamed of pursuing a career in scientific research. By working as a lab assistant for Dr. Wei, she has had the opportunity to play a critical role in this research.

Last summer she participated in SBU’s Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program, which enables SBU students to experience significant research projects with SBU faculty. This led to Kara’s senior capstone project for the Dutile Honors Program. With Wei, she has co-authored a recent journal article and received invaluable experience with lab work and presenting research findings. After graduation in May, Kara plans to go on to graduate school and says that this lab experience she is receiving at SBU is making her dreams possible.

The opportunity to participate in undergraduate research with Dr. Wei has been so profound for Kara that she recruited several more students to help, including Annie Wolfe, ’13, and Ellie Fjellman, junior.

“I love getting to think for myself, design experiments and discover answers,” Annie said.

Ellie just recently switched to a biology major and wanted to have hands-on experience.

“I figured this would be the best way to transition to a new major and they need younger students to ensure the research keeps moving forward,” she said.

The students explained that in a typical week they read journal articles and then meet with Dr. Wei to discuss what they read. Based on that discussion, they develop research questions, design experiments and spend their weekends in the lab conducting experiments and compiling results.

“I’m learning how to manage and organize an entire research process,” Kara said. “I love the lab work and the opportunity to apply what I’m learning and to think creatively.”

According to Wei, undergraduate research opportunities are a great asset for SBU and ensure our students are well-prepared and top candidates for graduate schools.

“I’ve met the most intelligent students at SBU since I came,” he said. “I really enjoy working with them, and I can’t do this without them.”

For Kara and other students, this is a dream come true.

“Some days, I wake up and realize how blessed I am to be working on things I love to do in a place I love,” she said. “I am so glad God opened doors for me to pursue undergraduate research at SBU!”

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