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Student project joins science and technology

May 17, 2017

“It is an interesting time in science,” said Dr. Patrick Videau, assistant professor of biology at Dakota State University, “because there is no science without technology and very little technology without accompanying scientific innovation.” 

This trend is evident through the work of two DSU students, Vaille Swenson and Thomas Lange, who blended their science and technology skills into a “functional collaboration that can grow and produce a worthwhile outcome,” Videau said.

Swenson, a biology for information systems and physical sciences double major from Nederland, Colorado, will be sharing the results of this collaboration in June at the ASM Microbe, the annual international meeting of the American Society of Microbiology (ASM).

Swenson and Lange, a cyber operations major, have been working to create a new mobile application which will simplify the analysis of biological samples. This app will be of particular use for researchers with limited resources.

The app development came about as the result of another DSU research project Swenson is involving with, a project to analyze the microbial content of land-disposed sewage sludge from Washington state. This research requires the use of EcoPlates, trays with 96 small depressions called wells. Color changes in the samples show the degree of microbial activity in each well.

These color changes can be analyzed one of two ways, either with a microplate reader or by manual measurement, Swenson stated. Manually analyzing the plates is time-consuming, and the equipment can cost up to $40,000, out of the price range of many researchers.

To keep a record and visually track the progress of her samples, Swenson took a picture of the plate with a mobile phone. As she and Videau discussed the photos, they determined that if the images were taken from a consistent place and height they could turn the photos into an analysis tool instead of just a visual representation.

“I found there was really good correlation between the [light intensity] data of the EcoPlates and the pixel intensity of the wells,” Swenson said. She completed a correlational analysis between the image of the plate and the actual values, but needed help with the programming technology to develop the analysis app.

Lange was the first person Swenson thought of for this portion of the project because of his coding ability. The two had met as freshmen cyber operations majors at DSU, but Swenson later changed her major. “I really like science, but technology is definitely useful,” she said.

While it was not specifically related to cyber operations, the science project “sounded like a good opportunity to learn,” Lange said. The Bridgewater, S.D. junior was already familiar with the programming language Python and web programming knowledge necessary for the project, but underestimated how much debugging would be involved. “Time has been the limiting factor with classes and tests,” he added.

The basic workings of the app have been completed, Videau said, but work is continuing to make it sleek and user-friendly. “To have two students from different programs succeed in a multidisciplinary project is a testament to the innovative capabilities possible at DSU,” Videau stated.