Deep, dark secrets: Research goes underground

June 8, 2010

This is spelunking with a twist. This is academic spelunking that is uncovering answers to questions. It is cave exploration that is helping sharpen the skills of tomorrow’s microbiologists.

Welcome to Todd Sandrin’s classroom. The associate director of the New College Division of Mathematical">">Mathematical and Natural Sciences and his students, supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Microbial Observatories grant provided to the University of Arizona (Raina Maier, principal investigator), are exploring the microbes that dwell in Kartchner Caverns southeast of Tucson. They are hoping to gain insights into whether those microbes help form many of the magnificent cave structures, such as stalactites and stalagmites, in the caves. With funding from the NSF, the research has yielded what Sandrin believes are never before described bacteria from the caverns. Download Full Image

Sandrin says the work being done by his students is more than climbing and crawling and negotiating pitches and squeezes.

“This is important research because microorganisms perform many functions that larger organisms – humans, for example – rely on for their very existence,” says the associate professor, who joined the New">">New College faculty at ASU’s West campus in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “Microorganisms make oxygen, recycle wastes, clean up hazardous wastes. To understand how they perform these critically important tasks, we must be able to study them.”

Studying microorganisms in a controlled environment is one thing, but because as many as a whopping 99 percent of microorganisms in the natural environment fail to grow in a laboratory environment, Sandrin and company are taking it underground at Kartchner Caverns, an Arizona State park with more than two miles of pristine cave passages carved from limestone and filled with spectacular formations that have been growing for 50,000 years and even longer.

“Kartchner Caverns is widely recognized as a spectacular example of carbonate cave development,” says Sandrin. “The cave is one of the top 10 caves in the world in terms of mineralogical and speleothem development. The caverns represent an ideal, pristine habitat in which to study microbial community structure, function, dynamics and the role microorganisms play in speleothem formation.”

The research may also be groundbreaking.

“Our work has the potential to transform the current understanding of how caves and structures within them develop,” Sandrin says. “To my knowledge, my group, in collaboration with Dr. Raina Maier’s group at the University of Arizona, are the only ones in the world exploring microbial diversity in Kartchner. In addition to better understanding the development of cave structures, we also anticipate gaining insights into how microbes persist in this stressful, low-nutrient environment.”

While Sandrin’s legions seek insight into how carbon is cycled in cave environments and how microbes handle an unfriendly setting, they are also in the process of confirming the existence of previously undescribed bacteria. They are using gene (DNA) sequencing. The magnitude of the significance of such a find, he says, will be determined, in part, by the identity of the microbes and by what the microbes might be doing in the cave.

Susanne Rust, a senior in the life sciences degree program who is eyeing graduation in December, says the Kartchner Caverns research is feeding her interest in “the little guys” through the research opportunity provided by the Sandrin NSF grant.

“I became most fully engaged in microbiology after learning how important the little guys really are, and this research has exceeded my expectations beyond belief.

“It is so wonderful to be participating in the elucidation of knowledge and scientific understanding. It is really fun and exciting that we are trying to do something new and find out what is really living in Kartchner Caverns that we cannot see.”

Another student researcher, Nam Nguyen, graduated with a life sciences degree in 2009 and is currently applying to the master’s program in microbiology in ASU’s School">">School of Life Sciences in the College">">College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. A native of Vietnam who moved to the Valley in 1990 and graduated from Glendale High School in 2005, Nguyen dug into research after taking a Sandrin lecture on microbiology during the spring semester last year.

“I find Dr. Sandrin’s enthusiasm for his research to be infectious, and that got me interested,” says Nguyen. “I’ve learned a lot working in his research lab and have gained more experience in, and understanding of, the field of microbiology than I thought was possible.

“When someone asks me what the most rewarding part of my research is, I tell them that it is all rewarding. I gain valuable experience and insight through my daily lab activities and I believe that the results of my research will contribute to the body of knowledge in this field.”

When not caving at Kartchner, Sandrin and his students are exploring how microorganisms and the communities they compose cope with and flourish in stressful environments. Currently, his lab group is investigating fundamental chemical and molecular aspects of the toxicity of metals – research that could one day lead to the design of strategies to clean up – bioremediate – hazardous wastes in the environment. The work is enabled by a proteomics and functional genomics core facility at the West">">West campus – a facility that student Rust is using to develop, optimize and refine methods of microbial fingerprinting.

“The core facility contains two key pieces of instrumentation – a MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer and a microarray scanner,” says Sandrin, who teaches such courses as “The Microbial Universe,” “Cell Biology Laboratory,” and individualized instruction for senior-year students. “Some of the equipment we are using for the Kartchner project is contained within the core facility.

“The West campus is truly one of a very fortunate few primarily undergraduate campuses in the nation that has this caliber life science research instrumentation available to students and faculty.”

He says students are the key in his research projects.  “Students are vital.  It is undergraduate students who, in part, allow the lab to be so productive. Working in consultation with and alongside me, they actually ‘do’ the work; they gather the data, they run the instruments.

“Clearly, the experience is helpful to them and many of my former students have gone on to secure outstanding jobs,” he adds, pointing to one who is currently working with J. Craig Venter, the internationally renowned biologist who sequenced the human genome.

Steve Des Georges

National transactional clinic conference hosted by College of Law

June 8, 2010

Clinical Professor Eric Menkhus and the College of Law hosted the 9th Annual Transactional Clinical Conference on Friday, April 30, at SkySong, the Arizona State University Scottsdale Innovation Center.

The conference was for directors of law-school clinics where students learn to assist small businesses and non-profit organizations with legal matters that they encounter on a daily basis. These include business and intellectual property transactions, and exchanges among parties that don’t involve litigation, Menkhus said. Download Full Image

In the world of clinical legal education, transactional clinics remain “the new kid on the block,” said Praveen Kosuri of Pennsylvania Law School, a conference panelist. But the Transactional Clinical Conference, which began nine years ago as an intimate conversation among the few clinical professors at a handful of law schools, is growing up, he said.

“The number of people under the tent has grown tremendously,” said Kosuri, Practice Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic at Penn Law. “Some of us focus on small business, other non-profits, some community economic development, and still others on innovators and technology. Yet we all are trying to use our clinics as vehicles to teach our students how to be good transactional lawyers.”

Thomas H. Morsch of Northwestern University School of Law said the best law schools around the country recognize the disconnect between lawyers and entrepreneurs, and are involved in teaching law students how to be problem solvers rather than ‘naysayers.’

“Lawyers and entrepreneurs make strange bed fellows,” said Morsch, Emeritus Professor of Law and Emeritus Director of the Small Business Opportunity Center at Northwestern. “Lawyers look ‘backwards’ at precedents while entrepreneurs look ‘forward’ to the launch of a new business or new product. Lawyers are generally conservative and risk-adverse while their clients are almost always optimistic and willing to take chances to achieve their goals.”

It isn’t enough for lawyers to know legal doctrines, without knowing how to apply them in real-world situations, relate to client needs and work with other professionals, he said.

“The spring conference and workshop at ASU was particularly successful in view of the law school’s commitment to real world, inter-disciplinary projects involving students from law, engineering and the graduate school of business, as well as the tech-transfer office and SkySong,” said Morsch, also a conference panelist. “It was quite obvious to all who attended that ASU is supportive of a cutting-edge approach to law-school education far beyond what law schools have traditionally offered to their students.”

The ASU conference included panels on using technology to improve communications among students, faculty, staff and clients, counseling non-profit and for-profit clients and the client characteristics that lead to effective clinical experiences.

“Most clinics have more demand than they have bandwidth, so they need to find a way to carefully select their clients,” he said.

The 45 participants also listened to experts talk about building and implementing strong pro bono relationships with local law firms, best practices for maintaining intellectual property and completing tax-exempt status documents for clients, and the pros and cons of working with high-growth clients.

“How much money can someone have, and you can still work with them?” Menkhus asked. “If using all their resources to pay their legal or consulting teams and then not having enough money to move their products or services forward would kill a business, I would view that business as someone I could work with. But other clinics work only with truly indigent clients.”

A presentation was made about eLaw (, an online tool sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation that has helpful information and materials dealing with entrepreneurship law. The Kauffman Foundation partially funds the College of Law’s Technology Ventures Services Group, a course for ASU graduate students in law, business, engineering and other disciplines who work in the Technology Ventures Legal Clinic or Technology Ventures Consulting.

Susan R. Jones, a Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the Small Business & Community Economic Development Clinic at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., congratulated Menkhus on a successful clinic.

“As the co-host of last year’s conference I know how much work goes into the planning, and I’m particularly pleased that he continued the tradition we started at GW last year of breaking down silos and including intellectual property and community economic development clinicians as participants in the conference,” Jones said. “An important part of the conference is the interaction between panelists and participants, networking with colleagues and discussing various teaching techniques and best practices. Professor Menkhus’ leadership in hosting this conference has put ASU on the map in this important field.”

Entrepreneurs and non profit groups lacking access to capital have a unique set of needs and require a range of transactional legal services, Jones said. Conferences such as this one help clinic faculty become more familiar with those needs, she said.

“When I started teaching at GW in 1988, there were only a few law-school small business clinics, and today, there are more than 80 clinical programs engaged in aspects of transactional work,” she said. “It’s exciting to see new programs developing and growing.”

The ASU conference was one of the best Kosuri has attended, because the panels were thoughtful and well planned. Menkhus credited his assistant, Suzanne Lynn, with the organization, saying, “She did all the heavy lifting. I just picked topics and panelists.”

Noted Kosuri, “With more and more transactional clinics coming online every year, it’s great that those of us who have been doing this for awhile can share some of our experience with those just getting started. As a group, we need to continue to challenge ourselves in examining what we do and how we do it. These conferences are a great opportunity to do that.”

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder">">
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law