Manipulating Mold

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“The best thing about research,” said Krystina Cocco, “is that you’re going to get an answer either way. Maybe you’re not doing well as far as your hypothesis is concerned, but you’re still going to get answers.”

Cocco, a graduate student in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences in the School of Allied Health Professions, spent last summer as an undergraduate studying Stachybotrys, a black mold that — like most molds — grows in water-damaged structures such as those affected by Hurricane Katrina. The slow-growing Stachybotrys often gets overgrown by faster growing organisms, which makes identifying it difficult. This, in turn, poses problems since Stachybotrys can cause neurological problems in people and animals, Cocco said.

“The spores that it releases make people ill. So, you want to find and culture and isolate and identify it as soon as possible along with other environmental hazards,” Cocco explained. “But the problem is that Stachy takes a while to grow. … So when you plate it, it gets overgrown by other faster growing things. Really, really easily.

“The other stuff will grow on top it – so you may never know that it was there to begin with. So in a clinical sense, if that is what’s making the patient ill and you’re trying to isolate it from them, and they have other problems, we may have never gotten it to grow. It may have been beneath something else and we’re not able to see it.”

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So Cocco proposed a research project for her summer fellowship — part of VCU's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program — that focused on creating a medium more suited to Stachybotrys' growth needs. She’ll present the results of “The Effect of PH Modified Sabouraud’s Dextrose on the Selective Growth of Stachybotrys” at the Third Annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity on April 20 – part of VCU’s inaugural Research Week.

“What we wanted to do was make a media that made Stachy happy and kind of inhibited the other more common and faster growing molds,” she said.

Unfortunately, she didn’t get the results she had hoped for — she was unable to inhibit the growth of other molds while accelerating Stachybotrys' growth. Cocco, however, doesn’t consider the experiment a failure. Rather, she feels she gained an invaluable understanding of the research process, making future research more robust and meaningful.

“Now that I'm a graduate student, I'm definitely grateful that I had this prior research experience,” she said. “It helped bolster my interest in research and prepared me for further research experiences. It helped me develop a more focused view of clinical lab science, as my project was more microbiology based.”

That’s one of the main goals of these research fellowships, said Emily Hill, who mentored Cocco on her summer fellowship project.

“Engaging undergraduates in research early on in their education allows them to participate in the expansion of knowledge in their chosen field,” Hill said. “This process enables undergraduates to identify problems and answer research questions in a systematic manner. Fostering the development of future researchers is necessary to advance any chosen field of study.”

This research experience taught Cocco to use a systematic approach to see a project through from beginning to end, Hill added.

“Krystina perfected aseptic laboratory techniques, learned to identify environmental fungi, performed serial dilutions and colony counts and prepared media,” Hill said. “Participation in the undergraduate research fellowship has enabled Krystina to appreciate the importance of conducting research and disseminating findings to peers and colleagues in order to advance the field of Clinical Laboratory Sciences.”

Cocco gained other insights throughout the process as well.

“What stands out the most to me about this experience is the importance placed upon research and discovery at VCU,” Cocco said. “This experience has changed the way I conduct my research and definitely encouraged me to continue my research interests in the future.”