If a few minutes of your time could help researchers discover a new antibiotic or cancer treatment, wouldn’t you willingly devote that time?
It really might turn out to be that easy! Recently, my class was fortunate enough to visit the laboratory of the University of Oklahoma’s own Dr. Robert Cichewicz. He is the leader of OU’s Natural Products Discovery Group, a small army of postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers who are screening just about every imaginable substance for fungi that produce novel, medically useful compounds.
That’s where you come in: They want your dirt! As part of their citizen science initiative, they invite anyone and everyone to scoop up a bit of soil and send it to their lab. Just fill out the brief Soil Collection Kit Request (tell ’em I sent you!), and they will send you a small box containing instructions, a small soil scoop (yours to keep after you’ve done your bit), and a vial in which to place your soil. They pay the postage both ways, so there’s no reason not to request one. What’s more, after you’ve sent in your soil, you can check the status of your sample. There’s even a page detailing a couple of success stories.
If your class is studying ecology, microbial diversity, or fungi, it might be fun to have your students collect twin samples: one to send and one to keep. You could then have your students sprinkle some of the soil on a good all-purpose growth medium. If you don’t have access to agar, you could even autoclave some Cheerios and rehydrate them with a bit of sterile water — that’s what the Cichewicz lab uses as a growth medium. (Yes, Cheerios! It sounds ridiculous, but the giant stack of economy-sized Cheerios boxes in the Cichewicz lab provides pretty compelling evidence that it really, really works.) Students can try to isolate and identify the fungi they find, plate them in pairs to look for inhibitory interactions, and develop hypotheses about why so many types of fungi coexist and why they interact as they do. Meanwhile, the Cichewicz lab will be screening those same fungi for valuable chemicals. What a great opportunity to put classroom science into a broader context.