November 2012, Volume 16, Number 5


Scientific Research Booms at MDC

Day in and day out, Miami Dade College is all about improving lives. Now, through the innovative research endeavors of its students, sustained by a supportive, dedicated faculty, MDC is rapidly becoming a cornerstone for forward-thinking,  life-changing research.

Between the College’s School of Engineering + Technology and School of Science, dozens of research projects are under way in  science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to name a few.

Wide Range of Benefits

Studies have long pointed to the many benefits students reap from undergraduate research opportunities. The American Association of Colleges and Universities identifies undergraduate research as a high-impact practice that boosts students’ knowledge of culture and nature, strengthens intellectual and practical skills and deepens personal and social responsibility.

According to the NSF, undergraduates who participate in hands-on research are more likely to pursue advanced STEM degrees and careers – an important goal of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, whose report this year emphasized the need to retain STEM majors and to generate 1 million STEM degrees over the next decade. MDC is already doing its part, with a 39 percent increase in enrollment in STEM programs in the past four years.

Industrious Summer

This past summer, more than 50 MDC students took part in eight-week research projects at four MDC campuses, the USDA, the University of Florida and St. Thomas University, culminating in presentations given at MDC’s first annual School of Science STEM Research Symposium, where they unveiled their work and findings.

“The fact that in eight weeks they can produce evidence-based research and talk about it in an intelligent way is very impressive,” said Dr. Heather Belmont, Dean of the School of Science. “This is weighty work, and solid evidence shows that if we get students involved in hands-on research earlier on, they are more likely to persist and complete degrees in STEM fields.”

Projects ranged from Jonathan Lehrman’s work with zebrafish, whose regenerating spinal cords may hold clues to help improve the treatment of spinal cord injuries in humans, to Katherine León’s mapping of the mitochondrial genome of the fava bean, useful for potentially adapting the nutritious bean to climates with few staple crops.

Access to Big Ideas

Throughout MDC, students are engaged in research opportunities that bring labs to life. Under the direction of Dr. Isaiah Urhoghide, students at North Campus are developing a water purification system based on corn waste products that is showing promising results, effectively removing 80 to 90 percent of heavy metals. At Homestead Campus, Dr. James Ley’s students are making resveratrol, a cancer-fighting substance found in red grapes and wine. Microbiology research at Wolfson Campus focuses on genetics, under Dr. Edwin Gines-Candelaria and Professor Alfredo León, while ongoing research at Kendall Campus under Dr. José Orta opens up the world of physics to his students.

The often-prohibitive cost of machinery and materials necessary to support research makes it difficult for most colleges and universities to offer undergraduate research opportunities to students. However, MDC’s aggressive pursuit of grants has enabled the College to build labs rivaling those found in the industry, universities and even government facilities.

“When we give tours of MDC’s labs to investigators from other institutions, they leave mesmerized,”  said Dr. Pablo Sacasa, chair of physical sciences at North Campus and a recent USDA fellow.

Revolutionary Apps

At MDC’s Computing Research Lab, students are both explorers and pioneers. Under Dr. Miguel Alonso and Dr. James Poe, students step confidently into the wide world of smartphone technology, investigating its limitless possibilities and creating a myriad of uses for app technology, from smart traffic analysis to decoding color-coded resistors for the color blind. Current medical projects include an app that turns a Bluetooth device into a low-cost hearing aid alternative, as well as a biometric signal interface to actuated prostheses for amputees, to name a few.

“There are so many possibilities for app use within the health care field,” said Alonso.

As STEM fields take on renewed importance for cutting-edge research at the College, MDC stands ready as a haven for discovery, proving once again that opportunity really does change everything.

— MR

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