Instant Pot inspires scientific research for Swenson

Academics, Admissions, College of Arts and Sciences

Instant Pots® were all the rage at Christmastime in 2017, promising to provide healthy meals with a short amount of prep time.

Surprisingly, the multi-purpose pressure cooker could also provide food for scientific ideas.

Vaille Swenson

Vaille Swenson, a senior biology major at Dakota State University, received one of those kitchen appliances for Christmas that year, and realized that it replicated a lot of the conditions of a piece of equipment commonly used to sterilize equipment in scientific research, an autoclave. The Instant Pot also used high pressure and temperature, but was small and affordable, so throughout the next six months, Swenson put her idea through the scientific process.

“I did a literature search and found there were no publications on this observation,” Swenson said, so she began testing her hypothesis with her own Instant Pot.

“I took sourdough starter and put it in my pot to see if it killed the wild yeast strains common in sourdough,” Swenson said, and was surprised when the appliance did sterilize the entire mixture. She ran more experiments with three other pressure cookers, and discovered that while all four pressure cookers were able to sterilize research equipment and microbial media from a range of microbes, only the Instant Pot killed geobacillus spores, a type of bacteria that have a high heat-tolerance, and are used to test commercial autoclaves. She wrote about her results in an article recently published by PLOS (Public Library of Science), concluding that “store-bought pressure cookers can be an appropriate substitute for commercial autoclaves.”

Swenson said, “I hope this information can be used by schools to introduce microbiology to students, or for grossly-underfunded research labs to do microbiology safely.”

Dr. Michael Gaylor, associate research professor of chemistry at DSU, said scientists are driven to make new discoveries to advance human knowledge, “but producing new knowledge that translates immediately into practical, cost-effective benefits for humans is all the more exciting and extremely validating of our research efforts.”

Swenson has been involved in a number of research projects during her college years, but this is her first lead authorship, which Gaylor said is quite an accomplishment.

“For such an impactful study to be conceived, designed, and conducted almost entirely by an undergraduate student makes this scholarly contribution even more meaningful,” Gaylor said.  

“You learn about how much goes into a publication when you run a program,” Swenson said. “It’s nice to get that experience, because it will be helpful down the road.” For Swenson, this means graduate school. The Nederland, Colorado native has applied to nine microbiology graduate schools across the U.S., and has been invited to all nine for interviews. After earning her Ph.D. she hopes to work on vaccine development.