Jessica Keys will be spending her summer getting to know one of Earth’s hardiest organisms.
Keys, a biology major from Rochelle entering her senior year, won a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program to work with microbiologist Karen Lloyd at the University of Tennessee on investigations into single-celled microorganisms called archaea.
Among the most widely distributed life forms on earth, archaea can be found in habitats ranging from hot springs to salt lakes and from the deep-sea thermal vents to the human colon. Many are extremophiles, capable of thriving in high temperatures and low oxygen levels. Keys will be one of a group of undergraduates working with Lloyd to analyze archaea sampled from the deep ocean floor. Using geochemical measurements and polymerase chain reaction sequencing, they hope to better understand the environmental role the microbes play in seemingly inhospitable habitats.
“It’s going to be a great way to spend the summer,” Keys said. “It’s like a mini-graduate-school experience.”
Keys has encountered archaea before. At Elmhurst, she has worked with Professor Tamara Marsh to analyze archaea collected at hot springs in Yellowstone National Park over each of the last several summers. Marsh is investigating why some archaea are genetically coded for resistance to heavy metals. Marsh suspects that those archaea that produce methane as a result of metabolic processes—so-called methanogens—may also depend on heavy metals like chromium 6 to create energy.
Keys said she came to Elmhurst already fascinated by microbiology, and her work with Marsh has deepened her interest.
“It’s amazing that something so simple as these microbes can be so mysterious, too,” she said.
Keys will spend 10 weeks at Tennessee. In addition to working in the lab, she’ll also attend workshops on hypothesis development, experiment design, data analysis and graduate-school opportunities. At the end of the summer session, Keys and the other undergraduate researchers will present their findings in poster sessions. The award includes a stipend of $5,000.
Keys said she was grateful for the chance to build on the research experience she has already gained at Elmhurst.
“You work so closely with your professors at Elmhurst, and that’s an opportunity you just don’t get at larger schools,” she said. “It really makes Elmhurst different.”