Tyehimba Turner already had a lot of experience when he came to Dominican University. The sophomore biology student began working as a research assistant in a University of Chicago biology lab while attending Lindblom Math and Science Academy, and he later worked in a high-level fellowship from the National Leadership Alliance organization.
But, he says, he's still explored a host of new opportunities since coming to River Forest.
Among them, he has continued the research originated at University of Chicago—a project focusing on the metabolic properties of the natural sweetener and sugar substitute Stevia—alongside a faculty mentor, Margaret Jonah, professor of biology. It's that experience that recently took him to the National Council on Undergraduate Research conference, where he gave an oral presentation.
The conference, held April 11-13 at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, is highly selective. Turner was nationally selected to present and is the first Dominican University student to do so.
"This is quite an honor. Students from all over the country try to present at this, and he actually did an oral presentation, which is even tougher to get," said Martha Jacob, director of URSCI.
The research is just one step in a long line of research on both the nutritional qualities of the plant and a larger exploration into the human body's metabolic processes. At the crux of his project is locating a strain of bacteria in the natural environment that can metabolize Rebaudioside A (RA), a component of the Stevia molecule.
Stevia is some 300 times sweeter than sugar to human taste buds, but the human body does not contain bacteria able to metabolize, or digest, RA. Thus, the plant has become used widely as a zero-calorie alternative to sugar. In addition, marketers have positioned the product as a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners such as saccharine (Sweet & Low) or aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet).
However, Turner believes it is possible that a bacterial strain found in nature may be able to metabolize RA under certain conditions. This thinking follows research around cellulose, an organic compound found in plants that is indigestible to human gut bacteria but has been found to be digestible by other bacteria, some of which utilize the substance only under stressful conditions.
Thus, Turner and Jonah have begun testing a variety of bacteria from soil samples they have collected from across the country. If an effective bacterium is found, the researchers will be able to study it for insights on the genes responsible for regulating its metabolic pathways.
"The 30,000-foot view is that this research could ultimately help provide insight on metabolic pathway regulation and formation," Turner said.
In addition, he notes, there is much current research focusing on the way the body reacts to Stevia and possible effects on human health. Use of the product as a sweetener and herbal remedy has been common in places such as Japan and South America for generations, but it was only relatively recently that it has become commercially available as a nutritional additive in the United States and Europe.
The political battle among the sugar industry, creators of artificial sweeteners, Stevia producers and the Food and Drug Administration is another fascinating element to the story of Stevia, and is something that Turner says his other classes in the core curriculum have helped him understand. He currently is taking the honors political science class of 2013 Lund-Gill Chair Chris Kennedy, which he has found to be particularly enlightening.
The ability to explore other disciplines is an opportunity that he might have missed had he not come to Dominican, said Turner, who plans to pursue a PhD in biology after graduating. He also points to the one-on-one tutelage he's getting from professors and access to his own working space in Parmer Hall as opportunities that would not have been available at a larger institution.
In addition, he said, Dominican has afforded him the opportunity to pursue a minor in another field he's passionate about—apparel design.
"I had a piece in the recent fashion show, and the design was inspired by the historical practice of lynching. That's definitely something I could not have done at any of the other schools I looked at. Fashion is not just a shallow thing. It's an outlet for social commentary and social justice, and that's something my professors have encouraged."
Turner will again present his research at the American Society of Microbiology's 2013 general meeting in Denver, Colorado.