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North Hennepin Community College (NHCC)

Undergraduate Research at NHCC

NHCC sits on a 120-acre campus in Brooklyn Park, MN, a first-tier suburb of Minneapolis. Sixty-one percent of NHCC students are first generation college students, 40% are students of color, 45% are low income, and 43% are age 26 or older. With almost 11,000 students (5,000 FYE) NHCC has experienced an enrollment increase of 25% over the past decade, adding an additional 4.9% (FYE; 7.4% headcount) this year. Many other community colleges across the country have also enjoyed rapid growth in recent years. It is an exciting time to be part of the community of community colleges!

Undergraduate research began at NHCC in 2007-2008. Biology has been the most active discipline.  The geology and chemistry departments have contributed to the UR efforts. Among the social sciences, psychology, and the liberal arts disciplines of history, philosophy, and English have small but growing UR programs.

In biology, out-of-classroom, noncredit, independent research has been the most common model. Although a lot of fun (and work!) and beneficial to students, the model is not sustainable. This is where CCURI will provide support and a structural foundation. The support (financial, training, networking) is a result of the long-term, innovative efforts of Virginia, Jackie, James J., John, and, of course, most notably James Hewlett. Thank you! The structural support is primarily the CURE, PURE, SURE paradigm. In retrospect, NHCC has dabbled in the CURE and PURE approaches; however, the efforts lacked focus for want of a coherent vision. We will embark on our first SURE this summer. Very exciting, indeed, and most importantly, a great learning experience for students.

Concise answer to the question, “Why do undergraduate research at Community Colleges”?

Unless community college students have the same opportunities as their peers at four-year colleges and universities, students who already face many challenges to success will be further marginalized in their post-community college endeavors whether academic or the workplace.

Benefits of undergraduate research at NHCC

Undergraduate research fosters a scholarly environment among students and faculty.  The research endeavor is replete with critical thinking, collaboration, self-empowerment, hard work, and fun. Student's research experiences at NHCC have enabled them to earn additional research opportunities, for example, NSF-sponsored Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships and post-transfer entry into labs at universities, scholarships, internships, and employment. Additionally, existing undergraduate research programs made the college an attractive partner (for example, Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to Hamline University; Lewis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation), garnered in excess of $50,000 from industry to support the program, and certainly did not hurt the college’s efforts toward a successful bond request to build a $26 million Biosciences and Health Careers building. In addition, out-of-classroom research has led to the development of new labs for some courses. In other words, undergraduate research pays off in curricular innovation.

More than 60 students have engaged in one- or two-semester and multiyear research projects. With the exception of a 1-credit course in Biotechnology Skills all of the projects have been noncredit work independent of the classroom, although a small stipend is occasionally provided. Students always work in teams and often parallel projects of a similar nature increase the pool of shared knowledge and enthusiasm. Of course, peer-review in science is critically important to the process. NHCC students have presented their work in oral and poster presentations at meetings in a half-dozen states, including the Geological Society of America, Animal Behavior Society, American Chemical Society, Midwest Ecology and Evolution Conference, Society of Wetland Scientists, National Conference on Undergraduate Research, Minnesota Academy of Science, and local and regional venues. The challenge and pride in explaining and “defending” their research is the single most powerful element of the undergraduate research experience for students.


Introductory biology for health sciences. To foster a deeper understanding of the scientific process students will analyze a large collection of maize mutants to identify mutant lines exhibiting novel phenotypes and characterize the phenotypic alterations caused by each of the mutation in the lines. This project will be in conjunction with collaborators from Hamline University (St. Paul).

Second-semester major's-level introductory biology. Lisa Tracy visited John Van Niel in September to learn how to use trail cameras in the curriculum. Even in a suburban environment small pockets of woodland and riparian environments harbor small and large mammals, and a variety of bird species. Lisa’s students “captured” raccoons, deer and waterfowl in the ponds and woodlot on campus, missing the foxes and woodchucks known to be present. The ability to get outside and work with animals that could not be studied by other means really brought biology to life for the students. The trail cameras were purchased through the CCURI grant. Paul Melchior is developing new labs that will utilize the molecular biology reagents and supplies also provided by the CCURI grant. Speaking of supplies, thanks to Beth and Heather for their hard work and patience with busy faculty.

Research-themed microbiology lab. Paul Melchior and Paul Gieser will pilot a semester-long lab project. The Biology 2100 (Microbiology) laboratory at NHCC has traditionally been designed to teach students basic bacteriology skills and procedures through weekly, proscribed lab exercises. During the Spring 2013 semester, we will operate the lab component of this course with an on-going research theme. While similar skills will necessarily be taught to the students, they will embark at the beginning of the term on a research project (discovery type).

As a class, the goal of the project will be to characterize the prokaryotic community in a clinical fluid sample. Each subset of students will focus their attention on a particular clade of bacteria. Because the process of defining such a population involves the isolation and biochemical/genetic analysis of bacteria, these techniques will be learned by students when they become necessary for them to accomplish particular research goals. This mimics a research setting, and forces students to plan ahead for protocols and materials. The culmination of the semester will be small group presentations in the format of professional symposia. Reagents and supplies for DNA isolation and PCR provided by CCURI.

Animal Biology. In addition to the usual slice and dice component of the lab, Craig Longtine’s students will work on two projects funded in part by the CCURI grant. The initial project will be to barcode the goldenrod gall fly Eurosta solidaginis and its parasitoid Eurytoma gigantea. Despite the long history of the goldenrod gall fly-parasitoid-host plant as a model system in multitrophic level interactions, the gall fly has not been extensively barcoded. Once that has been accomplished (it will work!), students will attempt to conduct some “forensic” ecology. A long-standing hypothesis based on indirect evidence of gall chamber characteristics has suggested that birds attack galls occupied by gall flies at a higher rate than galls containing the parasitoid. Students will attempt to amplify DNA from gall chambers subjected to avian predation. If a parasitoid was present at the time of predation and amplification successful, both gall fly and parasitoid DNA should be recovered.

Plant biology. Paul Melchior’s students will utilize the maize mutants originally identified and characterized by the introductory biology students. The patterns of RNA localization in cells and gene expression (using real-time PCR acquired through HHMI grant) in meristem development will be examined. Irina Makarevitch’s (Hamline University) genetics students will map genes responsible for the observed mutant phenotypes and use the completed maize genome sequence to conduct positional cloning of the genes, which will lay the foundation for the plant biology student’s research.

University of Minnesota) studied the tritrophic-level Solidago host plant - gall fly - parasitoid - avian predators) system for two years. She entered the Veterinary Medicine program at the University of Minnesota this fall. Erin's interviewers at the veterinary college spent more time on her research experience at NHCC than her academic program at the University of Minnesota.

Nguyen (B.S. University of Minnesota) works in a research lab at the University of Minnesota. Robbyn's two-year research project at NHCC led to a National Science Foundation scholarship to work at the Mayo Clinic for a summer. Robbyn (B.A. Minnesota State University Moorhead - Twin Cities campus) is a third-year doctoral student at the Mayo Clinic.


The goal will be to develop an intertwining thread of lab skills, basic protocols, and knowledge within a general theme of molecular ecology. The scaffolding of variations on a theme extending from freshmen- to sophomore-level courses will allow students to spend less time on learning techniques and more time thinking like a scientist because they will not be required to “reinvent the wheel” with each new course. An important part of the PURE strategy will be to continue and expand existing independent research programs that utilize a similar knowledge set. Again, students will be able to work more independently, creatively, and productively because core abilities will be established throughout the curriculum. It is our expectation that independent research activities will feed back, directly or indirectly, into the curriculum, augmenting innovation within courses and integration among courses.

Independent research. An existing project in metagenomics of pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) phytotelmata (the liquid in the pitcher) has identified some interesting and previously uncharacterized microbial inhabitants. This work entailed cloning and sequencing the 16S rRNA gene. The project also provides a great introduction to the tools of bioinformatics. The exploration of the phytotelmata microbial community will be expanded in two directions. Environmental shotgun sequencing (shotgun metagenomics) and screens of clone libraries will reveal (we hope!) genes present in the community. This will provide information both on the organisms present and the metabolic processes in the community. Some of the microorganisms found in phytotelmata can be cultured on artificial media. In collaboration with Tamara Mans (Minnesota State University Moorhead – Twin Cities) forward genetics will be used to associate phenotypes to a gene. Screens will be developed for phenotypes of interest (for example, pigmentation, pH or salt tolerance, nutrient conditions). Random transposon mutagenesis (pRL27 plasmid with Tn5 transposon) will be used to “knock out” genes. Following a long series of steps (transformation, plating on selective media, screening for phenotypes, DNA isolation and more transformation, restriction digest and so on), we will sequence from within the transposon into the circularized DNA. Using the methods of bioinformatics analysis the sequence can then be matched in databases with the objective of determining the gene that was mutated by the transposon to give the screened phenotype.

A new project is being developed to examine vertically transmitted microbial symbionts of insects. Taking advantage of a large colony (hundreds!) of Madagascar hissing cockroaches donated by former researcher Sarah Muncy, we will use several published universal primers for bacteria (16S rDNA) and fungi (portion of 28S nuclear large subunit rDNA) to generate amplicons. The PCR products will be cloned and sequenced. We hope that this project will be the “training wheels” for a variety of questions in molecular ecology of interest to us.

Nicole (B.A. Minnesota State University Moorhead - Twin Cities) is a biochemist in the biotechnology industry.


The Summer Undergraduate Research Experience is the most incompletely developed strategy at this point. We have in place funding to provide a stipend ($4,000/student) to five NHCC students engaged in a 10-week, full-time undergraduate research project at Hamline University with additional funding (same stipend) for two students to work at NHCC. Each student will also have about $1,500 for supplies and travel to a meeting.  We are pursuing funds to support several additional students at NHCC in full-time but shorter (4 weeks) research projects because a 10-week experience is too long for some students.  The projects at NHCC and Hamline wil be based on existing faculty research programs.


Vision and Change Implementation

Integrate Core Concepts and Competencies throughout the Curriculum

  • Introduce the scientific process to students early, and integrate it into all undergraduate biology courses

  • Introduce fewer concepts, but present them in greater depth. Less really is more

  • Demonstrate both the passion scientists have for their discipline and their delight in sharing their understanding of the world with students


Focus on Student ­Centered Learning

  • Engage students as active participants, not passive recipients, in all undergraduate biology courses

  • Use multiple modes of instruction in addition to the traditional lecture

  • Ensure that undergraduate biology courses are active, outcome oriented, inquiry driven, and relevant

  • Facilitate student learning within a cooperative context

  • Introduce research experiences as an integral component of biology education for all students, regardless of their major

  • Integrate multiple forms of assessment to track student learning

  • Give students ongoing, frequent, and multiple forms of feedback on their progress

Engage the Biology Community in the Implementation of Change

  • Promote more concept­ oriented undergraduate biology courses, and help all students learn how to integrate facts into larger conceptual contexts 

  • Create active ­learning environments for all students, even those in first ­year biology courses

High Impact Practices Implementation

First-Year Seminars and Experiences

Learning Communities

Writing-Intensive Courses

Collaborative Assignments and Projects

Undergraduate Research

Diversity/Global Learning

Service Learning, Community-Based Learning


Capstone Courses and Projects

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