In the depths of Gallahue Hall, 14 Butler University undergrads work to make the vaccines for a leading cause of infant mortality worldwide actually effective. But first, with the Backstreet Boys harmonizing about wanting it that way in the background, they need some really good ice.
The students are studying strains of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, for which there is no vaccine. There certainly are people looking for one, Assistant Professor of Biology Chris Stobart, also known as ‘Doc’ in this lab, explains. Lots of people. Major research universities and pharmaceutical companies alike are working to bring the first RSV vaccine to market. For them, Stobart says, the keys are to make sure their vaccine candidate is safe and effective. But these researchers are overlooking a major issue. Enter— Butler University.
RSV breaks down even at refrigeration temperature. That matters because the vaccines needed for infants require a live virus. Those chasing an RSV vaccine, Stobart explains, are so caught up with being first, they aren’t so focused on making sure it will actually last once it leaves the factory.
“Everyone has their eyes on the prize—the vaccine,” Stobart says. “But the key question that underlies how vaccines work is being ignored. They have to be stable, safe, and immunogenic. You need all three things to make a vaccine work. Without the answers coming from our lab, you only have two elements.”
So, here we are, back to the ice, back to the basement in Gallahue, and back to the Backstreet Boys. The thing everyone is overlooking is this whole temperature thing.
And Stobart would know. He was one of the overlookers. ‘Doc’ used to be in the business of finding vaccines. That’s how he realized such an important question was being ignored. As a postdoctoral research fellow at Emory University, he was on the hunt for an RSV vaccine. While doing that research, he realized that no one was worrying about whether or not that vaccine would actually last more than a day. So, he started going against the grain and decided to use a different strain of RSV for his vaccine. He got lucky, he says, and the strain he chose ended up being more stable than the strain that everyone else is using. His vaccine, which should enter clinical trials next year, would last longer than the vaccines being developed by most other research labs.
Now, he and his army of Butler undergrads are digging deeper into the very questions Stobart stumbled upon: What makes some RSV strains more resistant than others, and what strain of RSV would make it least susceptible to temperature variations?
This is the work of the Stobart Lab. But it is hardly just a place where major scientific questions are being answered. MCAT prep happens here. Trivia nights happen here. Ideas for other research projects happen here—five experiments are taking place right now. And, on occasion, naps take place here, thanks to a new couch on loan from a student’s family. First-year students through seniors mill in and out of the lab in the basement of Gallahue Hall on any given day or night. Just ask Jenna Nosek ’20, who storms in on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
“I have spent 19 hours in here the past few days: don’t test me, Sean [a fellow lab mate],” she jokes, and with that, she is out, the two lab mates laughing, as she makes her way out the door.
“I have told her to back off on the hours,” Stobart says. “But she is the expert in the lab right now on HPMV, another human respiratory virus we are researching. On her own, she brought this virus to Butler to study. She is essentially teaching us all, myself included, how this virus works and behaves.”
But at its core, this is research at Butler. Undergrads and faculty members teaming up to come up with, and then explore, the unanswered, overlooked questions that are vital to their field of study, but go ignored at larger, more research-focused institutions—where there is constant pressure to publish on hot topics, but not necessarily on the more nuanced, just as vital, questions.
“The primary goal of our research at Butler is to provide an environment for our undergrads to understand what science is, how it’s performed, and how it’s used in our world. We use science and research as a teaching tool,” Stobart says. “But the second goal, which is no less important, is to provide answers to the scientific community that still move the community forward. They don’t have to all be big answers, but they have to be answers nonetheless.”
For Kate Morris, it’s really simple. Higher education boils down to two things: teaching, and the production of new knowledge. The way to produce new knowledge, according to Morris, Butler’s Provost since 2012, is through research. And not just the traditional type of research that most people envision when they hear the word. It goes beyond beakers, test tubes, and chemicals. Research might be in a lab, of course, but it also takes the form of writing, literary analysis, anything that produces new information.
“The way I think about it is if we aren’t doing research, we aren’t doing our jobs as teachers,” Morris says. “Research is the production of new information that will be taught in tomorrow’s classrooms. We are always looking for faculty who are active scholars, furthering their disciplines, and who are furthering their disciplines while also teaching their undergrad students how to do that.”
But what makes Butler unique, she says, is the way it tackles each of these goals. At larger institutions, faculty tend to prioritize knowledge production, and teaching lags behind. Research is done with grad students, and it’s not a form of teaching, but rather a way to get recognition in major journals and move up within the institution and, subsequently, the field. Undergrads rarely get the opportunity to put their stamp on the project, she says.
At smaller institutions, Morris says, undergrads act like grad students. They have the chance to develop their own projects. But it’s much more than just a small school versus large school thing. Butler is unique in its offerings, she says.
While Stobart’s lab might be one of the largest on campus, it’s hardly the only research cooking.
Tara Lineweaver, Professor of Psychology, started a project in 2014 that looks at music’s impact on dementia patients. Since its inception, 156 students across all disciplines have been involved.
Assistant Professor of Entertainment Media and Journalism Ryan Rogers started a Sports Media Research Group in fall 2018, along with Associate Professor of Entertainment Media and Journalism Lee Farquhar.
The point, Rogers says, was to look deeper into different facets of sports media. The group published a paper on the impact of sponsors on esports, and recently presented their findings in Las Vegas at the annual Broadcast Education Association convention.
And sometimes the researchers extend beyond the Butler campus. Butler senior Political Science and Criminology major Julio Trujillo ’19 is working on a research project with Political Science Professor Siobhan McEvoy-Levy and three high school students from the Butler-Tarkington community. The crew got together as part of Butler’s Desmond Tutu Peace Lab, which McEvoy-Levy directs, and the Lab’s dedication to undergrad research and dialogue. They’re studying perceptions of career barriers according to minority youth.
Then there’s the telescope. Since 2008, Professor of Physics and Astronomy Brian Murphy has teamed up with Professor of Physics and Astronomy Xianming Han to produce 65 journal publications. And 29 of those have student co-authors. Topics of study range from the short- and long-term behavior of astronomical phenomena, to the rotation periods of asteroids, to the pulsating variables of stars, to the eclipsing variables of stars. All of the scholarship was made possible by a gift in 2008 from Frank Levinson ’75 which enabled Butler to join the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy. Since then, Murphy says, research involvement in astronomy has ballooned.
“In today’s world, coursework may give you the knowledge you need for a career, but coursework alone will only get you so far,” Murphy says. “Research gives those intangibles. It can be described as flying by the seat of your pants, not knowing what is around the next corner. And for that matter, trying to figure out how to get around the next corner. The problem-solving skills learned from doing original research can be transferred to any field.”
Look no further than Murphy’s former student, Katie Hannigan ’08. The former Theatre major got involved at the Holcomb Observatory on some projects and, Murphy says, gleaned different skills, like speaking in front of crowds, and presenting complex information, like research.
Hannigan is now a standup comedian, and recently performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Read Hannigan’s story on Page 6.)
Marisa Miller ’19 understands firsthand why research matters.
She has no memory of the details—she was just three months old—but her mom reminds her often. It started as a cough in the middle of the night. But, quickly escalated, and soon she was struggling to breathe.
Miller ended up in a hospital for a week, diagnosed with RSV. She was quarantined to a tent within the hospital for three days. After those first few days, her parents were allowed to hold her, but they had to put on the same gear a surgeon wears. They were terrified, Miller says, that she wouldn’t make it to her first birthday.
“When I was growing up, it was just something that happened to me that I knew was very bad. But I don’t think I understood how bad it is, and how many people it impacts,” Miller says.
Now, she does. Her Butler roommate is Darby DeFord, one of the students in the Stobart Lab working on the RSV research, and a co-lead author on the paper the group has submitted to the Journal of General Virology.
RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization for children under age 1 in the United States. As Miller explains, it presents itself like the flu, or other common colds, but can be deadly for the elderly or the young. In the United States, RSV leads to more than 2 million outpatient visits, and about 60,000 hospitalizations every year for children under age 5, according to the CDC.
That explains the race for a vaccine. But it doesn’t explain the problems inherent in that race, Stobart says.
As teams all over the world work to be the first to bring a vaccine to market, he explains, to solve a very real clinical need, most are using the same strain of RSV in these vaccine preparations. There are 1,000s of different strains of RSV circulating in nature, and each strain differs subtly. But the focus is just on creating a vaccine, not on all the different strains, how they behave, what makes them different, and which might make the best vaccine candidate, he says.
Enter the Stobart Lab.
They are the first group to thoroughly focus their research on how different strains behave, Stobart says. The group of 10 undergrads who will all be co-authors on the journal paper found that the warmer it gets, the more quickly RSV breaks down. But, they also found that certain strains are more resilient to temperature than others. And the strain that is being used in many vaccine candidates currently is not the best candidate.
The popular strain, A2, used in many vaccine candidates, has a half-life of 17 hours. So after 17 hours, half the virus will be ineffective. The Butler students found that a different strain, A2-line19F, is much more resilient to temperature, and has a half-life of 135 hours.
“We’re talking about something that’s much more effective. And what it suggests is there may be promise for finding an even better platform to use.” Stobart says.
Rusty Jones cannot decide where to begin. There are so many different options.
Jones is the Faculty Director of the Center for High Achievement and Scholarly Engagement (CHASE) at Butler. His office oversees many of the different options for undergrads to get involved in research at Butler. And Jones cannot decide where to begin.
There’s the Undergraduate Research Conference (URC). It’s one of the largest and longest running undergraduate research conferences in the country, and Butler has played host for 31 years. Faculty serve as moderators, but it’s undergrad-focused, as well as interdisciplinary. Students from across the country flock to Indianapolis to present, Jones says.
Then there’s the Butler Summer Institute.
Students get a $4,500 stipend to work on a research project for nine weeks during the summer. The projects are guided by a faculty member, but the ideas are student-driven. It’s a competitive process, as a committee of faculty members select up to 30 participants from all the student applicants.
New this year, Jones explains, is the CHASE Scholars program. It is, essentially, the Butler Summer Institute, but the research occurs during the academic year. The program funds four participants across campus.
It’s nearly impossible to say how many students participate in research at Butler, Jones says, because not all do it through one of these programs. There are plenty of students who get involved in a more informal manner with one of their professors. But, he says, it’s safe to say the majority of students across all disciplines participate at some point during their college experience.
“The biggest thing about our programs is everyone has a faculty member working closely with them, as students dive into topics they are passionate about,” Jones says. “The strength of Butler comes from the opportunities students get to forge one-on-one working relationships with faculty, and that faculty are willing to take this on because they know how valuable it is to the educational experience.”
Coming into Butler as a first-year student, Darby DeFord ’19 had no idea what research even was. Now, as a senior, she is the first co-author on the RSV paper.
The senior Biology and Chemistry major has worked in the Stobart Lab since she was a sophomore. Since then, she has presented on the team’s findings at several conferences, including the Butler URC, and in Maryland at the American Society for Virology Annual Meeting.
Next year, she will work in a lab at Washington University in St. Louis studying RSV. Looking at stability. And after that? She plans to pursue her MD/PhD.
“Dr. Stobart connected me with the person I will be working for at Wash U. I was starting to look for jobs and I texted him for some help, and by the next day he’d sent my name to a bunch of his contacts. Within a few days, I was connected with Wash U,” DeFord says. “That’s Dr. Stobart. He’s so much more than just a professor. He’s a mentor, he’s someone who’s willing to help us with anything we need.”
Juniors Sean Callahan and Ben Nick have the MCAT in five weeks. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, as they run an experiment under the watchful eye of ‘Doc,’ they ask him for help with the reading comprehension section. Callahan is not too keen on that section.
The lab consists of a mix of seniors, juniors, sophomores, and first-year students. Some want to go to med school, some want to be dentists, some optometrists, some PhD tracks. But there is one common thread: most had no plans of getting involved in research before coming to Butler.
“I always thought I wanted to be a doctor,” explains Jenna Nosek, a junior Biology and Classical Studies major with a Chemistry minor. “Everyone comes to college with the same jobs in mind. But then, research opened my eyes to all the different opportunities available to me, and all the different things you can learn about. I realized you can study the most random things and that can be your life’s work. It can be your job to study something that you are really interested in, that is really impactful, and you can enjoy it more than a job. Research has been eye-opening.”
Nosek first met Stobart when she had him as a professor in her first semester genetics course. He told her to interview for his lab. So she went home for fall break, thought about it, and talked it over with some cousins.
They told her she would never get into a research lab. She was just an undergrad. Those spots were reserved for grad students, they told her.
Nosek interviewed anyway.
She was shocked when she got in, she says. Now she is an author on two papers, is regularly in the lab at 3:00 AM, has presented the findings at conferences in Maryland and Minnesota, and worked in a research lab last summer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She was just accepted to a biomedical summer research program at Harvard University.
Oh, and she no longer wants to be a doctor.
“I realized you can be a professor and do research,” Nosek says. “There are so many different things you can study that aren’t explained to you until you get to school, get into the lab, and see these things firsthand, and that’s exactly what happened to me. Now I realize I can do what I enjoy every single day as a profession.”
Which sounds eerily similar to what got everyone in this basement in the first place. You know, the place with the ice, and, yes, those Backstreet Boys.
You see, ‘Doc’ was all set to be a, well, doctor. He was on the pre-med path, but then decided he wanted to teach and research. That is why he left his RSV vaccine candidate, and instead decided to answer those unanswered, overlooked questions he realized were being ignored. So now he is surrounded by undergrads who call him ‘Doc,’ and ask him mid-experiment what is more filling, McDonalds or Taco Bell.
“When I left Emory, I knew I wanted to pursue a career that involved both teaching and research,” Stobart says. “I always intended to be pre-med, but then I decided teaching was important to me. Butler fits the mold of a school I wanted because it has a research system that is amenable to undergrad research. I can’t do the stuff that is high-end, detailed research, because undergrads come in and don’t have the skills yet. They are new. They don’t have the science background yet. But I knew I wanted a system that would involve simple experimental assays, but still would have the impact and make meaningful contributions to the scientific community while teaching important lessons. I think we are doing that here.”