When Samantha Kalina ’19 steps into her kitchen, she’s like a mad scientist. She whips ingredients in a bowl, following a dessert recipe to a “T.” Seeing a chance to innovate, she adds a pinch of a new spice, then drizzles fruit juice into a new glaze. Sometimes it flops like a burnt souffle, other times, it’s a perfect first try like a recent attempt at authentic ramen soup, complete with all the traditional sauces.
It’s the same when she dons a lab coat and starts an experiment in Bradley’s microbiology lab. Instead of marinating a steak in a new sauce, she mixes bacteria and places it on plates. Then, she pinches a couple drops of potentially harmful chemicals into the mix, sets it aside and waits. If all goes well, Kalina’s experiment will succeed. If it fails, she will review the scientific recipe, adjust and try again.
“Lab time is one of my favorite things about Bradley. It’s when I sit down and do my own thing for a while,” said the biology major from Normal, Ill. “It’s therapeutic, like when I try a new recipe.”
Early experiences showed Kalina that science wasn’t just dry, ritualistic protocols. Instead, science could be as innovative as cooking or painting.
“When I found out food is rooted in science, everything clicked for me,” she said. “It’s like art to manipulate bacteria to make food. With treats like beer and chocolate, you’re manipulating science to make something creative.”
That realization and early conversations with biology professor Melinda Faulkner cemented her interest in microbiology. Kalina joined Faulkner’s lab as a sophomore and observed how bacterial cells protect themselves against stressors like oxygen. Though oxygen is necessary for life, humans and other oxygen-dependent organism generate hydrogen peroxide and other toxic molecules that contribute to the aging process and diseases like cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Kalina’s senior project jumped into another long-term study on Bacillus subtillis bacteria. This looks at protein made by bacteria when they are working to grow and survive on surfaces like tooth plaque or the slimy layer that forms on areas exposed to water. These growth areas are known as biofilms. Bacteria cling to film and resist stresses such as antibiotics or dentists’ cleaning tools. That is a concern for medical implants, water pipes, kitchen counters and the human body. Kalina’s work is learning more about what makes bacteria in biofilms so stress-resistant.
Though research is years from headline-grabbing results, it’s a chance to build a knowledge foundation for future explorers. One day, perhaps, work in Bradley’s labs could be part of the cure for a disease.
“You don’t know when our small discoveries will snowball into something important. I’m excited about the potential impact my research could have,” Kalina said. “There’s a sense of pride and ownership thinking my work could be important.”
Whether she’s cooking up the next lab discovery or variety of a favorite dinner, Kalina relishes the way home and school labs challenge her imagination.
“I feel like a mad scientist,” she said. “I’m constantly manipulating tiny things like a stereotypical lab worker, even in the kitchen. That’s what makes cooking and microbiology so fun. I never know what I’m going to get until I’m done, and hopefully it all works out.”