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THE BIOLOGY PROGRAM
The Biology graduate program prepares students for further graduate study and for private and public sector jobs in research, education, medicine, and environmental management. Biology graduate students conduct research under the guidance of one or more faculty members. Research topics span a wide range of medically and environmentally related topics in biology. Graduate coursework is available to support the research effort. Graduate seminars targeted cross-cutting, topical issues. Previous topics have included astrobiology, aging, genomics, and nanotechnology.
NEW! Five Year Program: Biology B.S./Biology M.S.
Exceptionally well motivated students may earn both BS and MS degrees in Biology in five years. The student fulfills the requirements for a BS degree in four years and for an MS degree the following year. A minimum of 160 credit hours are required to complete both degrees. The MS degree requires the completion of a thesis based on the studentís own research.
Students may apply for the BS/MS program at the end of their 4th semester. Admission is contingent on their having a GPA of at least 3.0, and on the acceptability of their proposed course of study. Students with upper division standing may also apply, with the same requirements for admission.
Students in the five-year program must apply for graduate standing, normally in their 6th semester. Once admitted to the graduate program, the student spends his or her 8th semester as a dually registered student. During their senior year, the student must select a graduate advisory committee and formalize his or her graduate research topic.
Once admitted to the graduate program, a student may apply for financial support via research assistant or teaching assistant positions.
Graduate Student Financial Support
Faculty in the Biology Department at New Mexico Tech have secured research funding in recent years from multiple sources including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Office of Naval Research, and the new Mexico Waste Management Education and Research Consortium, and the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute. This extracurricular funding provides stipends for graduate research assistants. Graduate students are also supported by the NIH Bridges Program and the Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network (BRIN).
Ongoing research projects reflect many issues in medical and environmental biology, including:
• The effects of pollutants on the human immune system
• Microbial diversity and biogeochemistry in extreme environments
Tom Kieft's research has taken him and his students more than 3 km deep into the gold mines of South Africa to collect ancient groundwater harboring bacteria and archaea that survive and grow under conditions of extreme heat and pressure. These microbes are metabolizing geochemically generated energy sources (H2 and CH4) and are thus functioning as an ecosystem that is completely independent of photosynthesis. One can envision such a subsurface ecosystem on another planet, e.g., Mars, even if the surface of that planet is inhospitable to life. New NSF funding will bring Dr. Kieft and graduate students back to South Africa for a new biogeochemistry project in late 2010.
Kieft also collaborates with Snezna Rogelj in developing novel systems for detection of pathogens in the environment.
As part of his ongoing ecohydrology project at DUSEL, Dr. Kieft is being funded by the Intercontinental Drilling Program (ICDP) to hold a workshop in preparation for drilling.
Kevin Kirk is an evolutionary ecologist who studies life history traits. He is particularly interested in the response of lifespan to dietary restriction. Feeding animals less food makes them live longer, and we still do not understand why this works, either physiologically or evolutionarily. Kevin is also interested in population and community ecology, and has used planktonic rotifers as model systems to investigate factors that affect species diversity.
Rebecca Reiss studies molecular evolution, which is the change in DNA sequence over time. Determining DNA change is easy, but the estimation of time is difficult. The projects in her lab are diverse in that they involve bacteria, packrats, and primates, but they all are systems in which DNA changes can be associated with an independent estimate of time. The microbial communities that surround leaky underground storage tanks quickly evolve the ability to break down xenobiotics and incorporate the products into their own metabolism. The evolution of the enzymes that break down the pollutant ethylene dichloride at a site in Northern New Mexico are the subject of a project in her lab. Another method to track the evolution of DNA sequences is to examine DNA from fossils, a technique known as ancient DNA (aDNA). In Rebecca's lab, DNA extracted from carbon-dated packrat pellets up to 40,000 years old is analyzed by Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) to determine its condition. It is known that in primates the movement of mitochondrial sequences into the nucleus is a continuous process. By comparing the evolutionary history of these nuclear-located mitochondrial pseudogenes with their progenitor mitochondrial sequence the time when the sequences moved can be estimated.
Snezna Rogelj is a cell biologist who studies how environmental pollutants and various drugs affect human immune system. Her students look at the ability of white blood cells to recognize each other and respond various inflammatory stimuli when exposed to pollutants and medicinal drugs (e.g. tamoxifen, an anti-cancer drug and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana). Dr. Rogelj is interested in biofilms, ubiquitous complex three dimensional bacterial communities that are widespread in nature and play an important role in human disease. In collaboration with Dr. Frank Huang in Environmental Engineering Department at NMT, she studies the structure, composition, growth and enzymatic means of mitigation of medically relevant biofilms. One promising approach to biofilm removal is based on the use of degradative enzymes co-produced with antibiotic bacitracin by the biofilm-forming and biofilm-degrading bacteria Bacillus subtilis. Dr. Rogelj is also involved in numerous other collaborative projects; some of these involve nanotechnology and include development of biosensors and pathogen detection methods while others span the fields chemistry, materials science, mathematics and physics.
The university's Pathogen Detection Program, funded by the Office of Naval Research, began over a year-and-a-half before anthrax-laden letters started making headlines across the United States. Tom Kieft and Snezna Rogelj of the New Mexico Tech Department of Biology now realize that the processes and technologies they are developing may soon have important implications in the nation's war against terrorism.
"Although we aren't working on specific bioterrorism agents like anthrax or smallpox, we are certainly making progress with some very real killers, especially those typically found in closed environments such as submarines," says Rogelj.
The Pathogen Detection Program is a coordinated effort to attack a very timely problem, says Kieft, the principal investigator of the research project, and by employing these novel approaches, several practical applications may be found for many different pathogens.
"This research project has taken on a whole different focus since September 11," Rogelj adds. "Now it's not only the soldier in a closed environment that we're concerned about, but also the innocent child who might become exposed to these pathogens. . . . For those of us working on this project, the entire picture has changed."
The Pathogen Detection project is now focused on developing novel biosensors for protein infectious agents (prions).
Out department actively collaborates with other departments at New Mexico Tech, including Chemistry, Materials Engineering, Computer Science, and Earth Science, as well as with researchers at other institutions.
Recent graduate students have gone on to Ph.D. programs at Washington University, Wake Forest University, and the University of Montana. Others have entered medical school at the University of New Mexico. Those entering the workforce directly are working in research at the University of California, the University of New Mexico, the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, and Los Alamos National laboratory.
Published by the Biology Department, Jones Annex, New Mexico Tech, 801 Leroy Place, Socorro, NM 87801 (575) 835-5612
• Biomimetic carbon dioxide sequestration
• Aging and the effects of caloric restriction on resource allocation and lifespan.