Aimee Wessel | I'm a Baterial Zookeeper
Explaining my Research
Bacteria “talk” and interact with one another. How they talk and interact affects how they behave, which is particularly important in the context of a bacterial infection. A single tiny cluster of bacteria is often what starts many bacterial infections, but little is known about the biology of such clusters. Studying such small populations of cells individually is a difficult task, requiring picoliter-sized containers—a culture flask that small is smaller than the width of a single human hair! To make such small containers, we have collaborated with Jodi Connell of Dr. Jason Shear’s laboratory at UT Austin. Jodi and I developed a technique that allows us to monitor a single cell, or a small population of bacteria, inside picoliter-sized containers. We can make small containers of different shapes and sizes, with container walls that allow nutrients, waste, and other small molecules to move in and out of the container.
With this technology, we found that communication between cells is regulated not only by population density, but also by the size of the population, and the amount of flow through the environment. Also, we demonstrated that as cell density increased, so did resistance to the antibiotic gentamicin. With this new method, we can continue to ask questions about how small groups of cells interact with one another. Our ongoing studies examine interactions between multiple species, asking simple, but important questions like “how far apart do cells need to be to interact with each other?”.
How did you become involved with “Present your PhD Thesis to a 12 year-old” project?
I’ve always really enjoyed explaining science to a variety of audiences, and I am thrilled when I see people understand new scientific concepts—especially when it appears that those concepts are interesting and thought provoking to them. So, when I met Josh Russell in the hallways of the Neural and Molecular Science Building at UT, I was immediately drawn to his idea to inform younger students about scientific research.
I’ve always thought that science should be accessible, and getting younger kids excited about new scientific ideas is one way to bridge the gap that exists between scientists in the lab and the general public. A good scientist should always be able to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing! Sadly, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the minutiae of research. By presenting the big picture ideas of our theses in a simple manner, scientists involved in this project reinforce why all of their work in the lab is worth doing.
What is your goal introducing such a project/topic to young students?
I want to help and encourage people who are generally not exposed to science—kids in particular—to think about and understand ongoing scientific research. I like making science seem less intimidating, and more interesting and accessible. I hope that by presenting my research in a simple manner, I can convince students (and maybe even their parents!) that understanding scientific research isn’t as daunting as it sometimes seems. After all, a lot of scientific research is funded by tax dollars—so it’s our duty to inform the public of our interesting findings!
About the Ph.D. Thesis
Probing prokaryotic social behavior with bacterial “lobster traps”
I’m a Bacterial Zookeeper