UMES research team dives into biofilm study with funding from the U.S. Navy

PRINCESS ANNE, Md. – A group of students at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore is diving into an exciting research opportunity. Students are being led by chemistry professor Dr. Victoria Volkis in helping the U.S. Navy to figure out a way to prevent damage to their ships, piers, and the environment. The research is being funded in part by a three-year $1 million grant from the U.S. Navy.

It all starts with a berry. Grad student Riham Alhag says they’re studying a specific type of berry that has properties which help it prevent biofilms. “We’re looking at their antioxidants, their conductivity, we’re looking at their pH. We’re looking at different measurements for them so we can see what’s the best way that we can create an environment-safe paint,” said grad student Riham Alhag.

Simply speaking, biofilms are sheets of microorganisms that form on many different kinds of surfaces. Once that biofilm is in place, it can make for a thriving environment for things like barnacles, which can cost millions to remove. It can also help harmful algae blooms grow, even killing wild life like fish and oysters. “Everyone who has a boat has to take it out and clean it, and it’s very expensive. The more precipitate is on the boat, the more fuel it will consume,” said Dr. Volkis. “The bacteria that is friendly in one environment, when the ship moves to the other side, can be invasive and can cause fatality of certain organisms. Massive fatality.”

Dr. Volkis says the berry they’re studying is just the beginning. Eventually, they will move on to studying other types of plants and animals that naturally repel biofilms, and trying to duplicate that in their lab. “Take a sea cucumber. You will not find even a little bit of those biofilms. There are groups of creatures like this and like that. So, we said there should be a reason for it,” said Dr. Volkis. “So, we said, ‘If marine creatures can do it, probably some plants can do it as well.’ Then we looked at the mechanism of how it forms.”

Even more exciting is the potential for expanding the research to areas like the medical field and space exploration. As Dr. Volkis explains it, biofilms also play a role in plaque build up in teeth, and bacterial growth in the water pipes of space vessels. “One of the reasons that pipes get stuck and the water gets a bad taste is the same thing, biofilm formation,” said Dr. Volkis. “Everyone knows about plaque on their teeth. Same problem. Same biofilm starts there.”

Before they get to that point, Dr. Volkis says they’re still looking for one more grad student to join the team. She says they’re targeting minority students, who are traditionally excluded from the STEM research field. “Students who are on this program will not only get access to state of the art research. This research involves undergrads and grads. So, it’s generations of students who will go through it. But they will also be exposed to how to work in the federal government,” said Dr. Volkis.

That’s why students say taking part in the research is just the beginning for them. It also opens up the door for future job opportunities, and a chance to make their mark on the world. “There’s a possibility that you will invent something or discover something that could help the world, not just the Navy or a specific area,” said Alhag.

Dr. Volkis says the project has a lot of support from other professors, universities, and NASA collaborators. She says working together will allow them to get better results, faster. “Indeed it’s an individual grant and an individual award, but it’s not an individual success. Modern science cannot be successful if you play solo,” said Dr. Volkis.

The team is hopeful to keep applying for more grants to keep the research going beyond the three-year expiration date for the grant. Plus, Dr. Volkis says if you’re an interested grad student, you can find more information by clicking here.

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